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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"How Skin Can See:" A Phenomenological and Cultural Account of Touch as Witness in the Latter Half of the Twentieth-Century

  • Author(s): Prabhakar, Prema Purigali
  • Advisor(s): Miller, Tyrus
  • et al.


Prema Purigali Prabhakar

"How Skin Can See:" A Phenomenological and Cultural Account of Touch as Witness in the Latter Half of the Twentieth-Century

My dissertation project on embodiment and touch uses literature, performance art, photography and theatre to explore how non-normative bodies--mentally ill, physically disabled, queer or violated bodies--reconfigure concepts of touch in the 20th century. This project will assert that contemporary experience, characterized by ever-changing technologies and traumatic historical events, has not only created new ways in which to define the body, but has also created new ideas about how art and the individual's body can and do touch. By exploring touch through witnessing, objects, and personal and historical trauma, my project ultimately seeks to answer the question posed by feminist historian of science, Donna Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, "Why should our bodies end at the skin?" My project argues that the inherent nature of touch means that our bodies do not and can never end at our individual skins.

In order to situate this interdisciplinary project in a theoretical and historical framework, my project uses phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work on the body; along with Jean Luc-Nancy's writing on touch; Elaine Scarry's work on the body under the nation-state; Amelia Jones and Petra Kuppers work on performance; Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway and Sara Ahmed's feminist phenomenology. Additionally, I will use the innovative methodology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Each of these theorists both provides a genealogy for the artistic disciplines I am examining and also helps to create a situational and culturally specific interpretation of what the body is, means, and can do.

The innovative aspect of this project lies with its comparative consideration of multiple genres and theoretical frameworks and with its argument for a theory of the body that looks closely at phenomenological and lived experience. Given that my project examines phenomenological experience by focusing on non-normative, disenfranchised bodies, this is necessarily a project of ethics. Non-normative bodies allow us to ask questions about what our responsibilities are when touch is negotiated between individuals whose hands, skin or sexual organs have been destroyed; and how social conceptions of purity, danger and contamination are negotiated between individuals and their society. If our bodies do not end at our skins, as Haraway claims and if our body lines are fluid, as Deleuze and Guattari assert, then how do we a create a responsible way of touching one another? . The many ways in which we can touch each other in contemporary culture: through computers, phones, public spaces, weapons, skin on skin, also makes it harder to negotiate how to touch each other ethically with a touch that is empathetic--what I name "witnessing touch-- rather than a touch which is fragmenting and destructive

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