Touch and Tact (Topological Limit)

We knew and roamed all the city’s arteries in ourselves. For years we’d been turning more kaleidoscopes than there really are. Working alone each in our own way. Then one day things happened. We resolved to give ourselves a break, and try to live each for ourselves in the body of each other one.
Nicole Brossard, French Kiss

A politics of touch is joyfully creative. It is a politics of affirmation.
Erin Manning, Politics of Touch

Solo polyamory for me is a de-escalation from the couple. For me and others it is a refusal to get on the escalator (again). But it can simultaneously also lend itself to living in extended relation and disrupting commonly accepted relationship categories. Many of us work to build networks of made kin as essential support systems, and with more fluid boundaries. And many of us do this under settler structural duress. It’s just that most solopoly people probably don’t name the challenges they face as settler-colonialism.
Kim TallBear, “Yes, Your Pleasure! Yes, Self-Love. And Don’t Forget Settler Sex is a Structure”

If I were to declare in public “I’m lonely,” it wouldn’t be an invitation for pity and advice on how to make friends. It would be an invitation to think through the structural conditions that produce that loneliness. Why when faced with this, why do we cue the rubrics and call for correction? Berlant argues that “virtually no one knows how to do intimacy,” but that “everyone feels expert about it (at least about other people’s disasters).” The police pull out their badges under the auspices of care – a care that makes demands.

Don’t you understand that there is a route to a life? Intimacy is routed, that is, it has rutted pathways beaten into the earth of relation-making (ie. structure). That much seems clear. But how? How do we imagine or enact the mobile attachments that Berlant opposes to institution? How do we negotiate institutional intimacy alongside the no less problematic calls for new forms of relation, of spatiality, of intimacy? Touch, tact, experiment, experience: we need something else, certainly, but how and what? Is the problem too complex to solve? There’s a temptation to declare “it’s a structural problem” then wipe one’s hands clean – scale taking care of our intimate issues like so much garbage dumped into the endless ocean. One countermove to this is to experiment with relation: to move past the couple form and to work toward alternate forms of kinship. Kim TallBear reminds us that even the radical forms of relation negotiated through polyamory are shaped by and within structural forces – for her the intensity of settler sexualities that reproduce and center dominant forms like the couple.

Do we need to get a little utopian to answer these questions? Erin Manning seductively proposes touch as liberatory method in her extended and often powerful paen to improvisational relation-making. For Manning, touch is a dance of reciprocity, negotiated in a field with stable historical protocols, but with enough room to move, to fold something from the shared affective friction. “To touch,” she suggests, “is to make a pact” – a pact committing to the composition of new forms and to an admission that the individual subject is not the kind of finished whole we imagine it to be.

Nicole Brossard, in French Kiss, pushes this further in the way she tries to find language for a group of young people negotiating one another and the city. For Brossard, relational experiment acts at the junction of language and bodies in the biological mess of the city. Brossard traces a field of queer possibility certainly, but the lines of flight she imagines invoke delight and terror, producing a sightline into the seemingly incompossible “We were juggling reality,” her narrator suggests, “and it frightened us.” Uncertain transducers of the urban virtual, Brossard’s experimenting lovers anticipate Manning’s sensible bodies as they touch, respond, assemble, and interface with the city at large. On the edge of sense, “we were radars terrified by the signals we were capturing beneath the celestial dome.” 

So why am I more drawn to the way Manning pairs the gushing potential of touch with thrown off and villainizing comments about tact? What does demanding tact challenge? For Manning, tact operates as the shadowy obverse of touch. Touch, in Manning’s estimation, involves improvisatory practices wherein self-organizing spatial production can be experimented with. “A politics of touch is joyfully creative,” she argues. It’s “a politics of affirmation.” In Manning’s estimation, tact (a negative practice) opposes risk (an affirmational practice). Risk organizes the polyamorous moves of Brossard’s Montréal. But, ugh, risk. Who even has everything to risk? Risk involves more than defying a fear that your feet might leave the comfortable terra firma of institutional habit, it also involves the reality that the state or its agent might articulate you back down.

At the same time, tact operates differently at a more intimate scale. The pactmaking of touch assumes an evenness, a level playing field or at least a willingness to play together, and brackets off the way that touch, in a more everyday sense, is not always some affirmative site for avant-garde relation-making – William Tell’s apple in the firing line and us left holding the bag. Touch can reproduce structural oppression. Manning belabours her definition of touch – touch can’t take place without reciprocity – to give relational improvisation some weighty potential. Except touch as a sense exceeds this definition. More than an invitation, touch can be coerced and coercive. It can act as an imperative or an uncontrollable vector in space. The demand for tact at an intimate scale can come just as easily from someone acting with this recognition, from someone for whom the demand to not touch also forms an experiment with relation. After all, touch can be a guidewire too, a hand on the back or the arm, its protocols machining steps into forms of institutional or settler intimacy. Tact is a refusal and the refusal to dance is a step too.