Can you feel it? The amazing world of the haptic

As I type this, I can feel the dusty yet smooth keyboard keys at my fingertips; the bouncy, malleable sofa against my back, arms, bottom and legs; the soft, cotton fabric of my skirt on my thighs; my tickly hair against my face; the sleek but sweaty rings on my fingers; the hard, refreshingly cool wooden floor under my feet; the warmth of the sun to my right as it streams through the window; and a troublesome heat radiating from inside my body, stored there from sitting in a hot car. I’ve just got home.

In my explorations of objects, our relationship with objects, our perceptions to the art of objects (particularly still life) and judgements on those objects, I’ve been thinking more recently about where we end and where objects begin. In particular, where we touch objects in cyberspace and how that experience can relate to the real-world haptic experience.

Haptic: comes from the Greek haptikos meaning ‘able to come into contact’. The term was first used in it’s Anglicised form by Isaac Barrow in 1683 in his Lectiones Mathematicae (Lanier, 2017) but it is only more recently when the word has been thrown around scientific and artistic circles.

What does it really mean? I can’t quite describe it to you but I know it when I feel it.

There’s something fascinating to me about the word ‘haptic’. It seems to have a magical, mystical quality. I’m not sure why, except that scientists are still trying to work out what ‘touch’ is all about in terms of the mind-body experience and how to quantify it and measure it. Something that cannot be easily categorised or analysed is always going to have a sense of mysticism about it, at least for me it is.

In very basic terms, haptics are about the sensations of touch and feel. The word defines how the body is able to make sense of space and motion through the meeting of physical entities and the emotional sensation that ensues. It’s not so much about the actual point of physical contact between the body and a surface as about how the mind reacts to that physical contact. In other words, the ‘haptic’ describes the sensations that cause emotions such as pain, pleasure, revulsion or attraction. There is still a lot of mystery associated with the haptic modality. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how it feels to touch a smooth surface. Scientists remain baffled by it. As do philosophers. It is this fact alone that fascinates me. I love things that confuse us and give us wonder. 

It is far easier to describe sensations from objects through the language of shape, colour or sound. It is much more difficult to describe sensations through touch. Visual metaphors translate much more easily to other people than do haptic ones. Haptic metaphors are much more personal, they are based on intuition rather than a pre-defined quality. What I feel when I touch the petal of a flower, the surface of metal, the fur of a dog might not be the same as what you feel. I know that I feel a lot. But do we all? Haptics requires direct contact and an emotional response which is purely individual. The body can only feel in this way by physical touch.

Haptics is relevant to my art practice because I believe that we are connected with our objects in a way that we don’t yet understand. They are not mere things. They are more than things. They are equal to us and a part of us. They guide us, we guide them. The relationship is mutual and balanced.

The philosophy of haptics stretches into so many areas of life, not just in terms of the blending of the real and virtual worlds. There is a lot of haptic thought that has to go into virtual reality technology. It is apparently a really complicated sensation to replicate in the virtual world, using pure data. That makes sense given that we cannot quantify the sensation and we cannot say that it is equal to all. Interestingly, phantom haptic reactions can be induced in the virtual world, such as feeling in phantom limbs, phantom tales and real areas of pain in the real world connected to the virtual world. If that is so, which it appears to be, there is more to touch than meets the eye, ironically.

My non-haptic virtual chair

When I tried virtual reality drawing, the haptic response was totally lacking and my hand had to adjust to this and my mind struggled with the idea of these three-dimensional non-haptic objects. I created an object yet I couldn’t touch it. It might be easy to imagine that but when you are in the ‘world’ of virtual reality your body expects to be able to touch and the lack of touch throws all the mind’s assumptions about the world off kilter. The virtual world is the only place I know of where this contradiction exists. I feel privileged that I have had the chance to confuse my mind in this way.

I believe that every touch we make impacts every object touched. A minuscule amount of the object is shaved off by our touch. That minuscule shaving has an impact on the feelings of the touch. What I want to ask is: Does the sensation of touch stay within that tiny flake of object? What happens to the haptic force that gets absorbed by that piece of thing?

Is there such as thing as the haptic force?

I need to think some more about this. That is part of what being an artist and a philosopher is all about, trying to reason with the unreasonable. Yet, annoyingly, the haptic thing is defying my attempts to understand it. Perhaps I just need to feel it.

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