We are touched. We touch the lives of others. We touch on things. We touch base. We can be in touch, out of touch, a soft touch, touch and go. We touch a nerve. We touch something up. We lose touch. We have the Midas touch, the common touch, a light touch. We light a touchpaper. We have a touch of class. We give something a finishing touch.
Touch has made its way into our everyday turns of phrase; it has dissolved into our vocabulary, the way we relate to the world around us. Both in this abstract sense and literally, often in the form of banal and daily gestures, touch is an invisible and inescapable part of our day-to-day. Such is the ubiquity of touch that we can choose to ignore its importance, until it is brought into question.
I began The Conglomerate Tactile Trash Object Project with the aim of valorising the sense of touch and interrogating the deep-rooted privileging of vision in the process. Through the project, I asked my collaborators to focus on touch through a series of tasks. I drew heavily on Anni Albers’ writing on ‘tactile sensibility’, where she addresses the neglect of the haptic, calling for us to retrain our attention to texture:
We will look around us and pick up this bit of moss, this piece of bark paper, these stems of flowers, or these shavings of wood or metal. We will group them, cut them, curl them, mix them, finally perhaps paste them, to fix a certain order …. We are here revitalising the tactile sense (Albers, 1965/2018, pp.46).
Using Albers’ words as a starting point, I created a conglomerate object from found materials whose textures and shapes I was drawn to, and placed this object in a bag. I passed this on to my first collaborator and asked them to feel inside the bag. Their task was then to draw what they feel. After this, they could remove the object from the bag, add their own found materials to it, and then return it to the bag, before passing it on to the next collaborator to repeat the process. In this way, the object passed along a chain of collaborators and I was left with a series of haptic drawings mapping its evolution and a final conglomerate tactile trash object.
The open-ended nature of the prompt to draw what you feel elicited a mixture of responses, with some participants taking a more abstracted and emotional response, while the majority chose to map the object more directly. Through these different approaches, my collaborators were able to question how they came to represent the object at stake. It appeared the practice of making a haptic drawing was a patchwork process of piecing together what they felt, physically as well as emotionally, as well as what they thought they remembered from past experiences of feeling similar objects. Many collaborators used this process to create drawings that were rooted in the visual as they attempted to map the spatial dimensions of the object accurately. In doing so, they returned to the routine privileging of the visual,  while ignoring the potential for touch to offer new ways of understanding an object.
Through vision, we often assume a sense of wholeness and truth that is not there, an attitude that manifests itself in our acceptance of the photograph as a supposedly objective record of a given instant, when in fact the sole vantage point and biases of any photograph are hidden in plain sight (Sontag, 1977/1979). In contrast to this narrow understanding of vision as an impartial way of knowing, touch offers a way to know differently. Often when we try to understand an unfamiliar object through touch, we are left with only partial knowledge, unable to piece its entirety together by ourselves. This process of fragmented and partial understanding is not unique to touch but it is laid bare by the act of touching, while it is obscured by the assumptions of wholeness associated with vision. When we see something, our understanding is just as limited, but this is a fact we seem to have forgotten. 
It is this process of coming to know something partially that is central to what I call an epistemics  of touch. Such an epistemics is rooted in collaboration and social contact as, in order to understand something more fully, various partial experiences and vantage points must come together and be in conversation in order to create a fuller picture. This was certainly true of my project. The different approaches of my collaborators, drawing on memory, emotion, or simply mapping the object’s form, were central to gaining a more in depth understanding of the object and its evolution. These different approaches came together through the drawings, as well as the conversations that I had with my collaborators. No one vantage point was sufficient; there could be no omniscient gaze that was able to capture the object and its ongoing metamorphosis in its entirety.
An epistemics of touch does not rely on touch as a metaphor but instead understands and valorises touch as a way of knowing and as a way of illuminating the processes, and biases, of knowledge production at large. The categorisation of the sensory is historically loaded with gendered and racialised hierarchies with touch always taking the bottom spot, associated with the body, the emotional, the touchy-feely, the animal (Fretwell, 2020; Peters, 2004; Schuller, 2018). Despite its seemingly arbitrary categorisation as an experience extracted from the sensory more broadly, an interrogation of touch remains valuable. Probing touch as a category allows for the questioning of the violent dismissal and neat packaging of the body under the heading of one sense, touch, while ignoring the fact that vision, the most privileged sense – deemed the preserve of the colonial white man who surveys and masters his territory and subjects – is also necessarily embodied (Haraway, 1988).
An epistemics of touch foregrounds the seemingly forgotten body and emphasises the fragmented nature of all knowledge, which calls out for collaboration and social contact in the process of piecing together fragments of understanding. Touch is not laden with the assumptions of totality and wholeness that burden vision; it is exactly the incompleteness and uncertainty that we associate with the act of touching that allows us to attempt to grasp the messy process of knowledge production.
Words: Lily Stone
Bio: Lily Stone is PhD student in Education at the University of Cambridge. In 2021, Lily completed her MPhil in Arts, Creativity and Education, in which she explored the epistemics of touch through a collaborative arts project, The Conglomerate Tactile Trash Object Project. Her doctoral research focuses on tactile picture books. She explores the practices and assumptions involved in their production and is interested in how we understand the haptic in storytelling practices.
Albers, A. (2018). On Weaving. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400889044-010. (Original work published 1965).
Fretwell, E. (2020). Sensory experiments: psychophysics, race, and the aesthetics of feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066
Peters, M. (2004). Education and the philosophy of the body: bodies of knowledge and knowledges of the body. In L. Bresler (Ed.), Knowing bodies, moving minds (pp. 13-27). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Schuller, K. (2018). The biopolitics of feeling: race, sex, and science in the nineteenth century. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822372356
Sontag, S. (1979). On photography. London: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1977)