Magical Touching

A recent edition of the BBC Worldservice programme, The Forum, focussed on ‘The real vs the virtual’. Amongst the guests was Edmund de Waal, potter and author. Bridget Kendall, the host of the programme spoke, rather gushingly, about how holding one of de Waal’s pot allowed her to commune with de Waal himself… I am being somewhat unkind as her response is not uncommon amongst people blessed with, what I would consider to be, a romantic imagination. Lots of people, historians and archaeologists being foremost amongst them, have a strong, emotional response to holding a a special object or being in a certain space. Through the object they believe themselves to be in direct contact with the person who held or made that object or who occupied that space in the past. I have to confess to a certain cynicism as I don’t share this response; however lots of people do and for that reason alone it is worth considering.

Thankfully someone has spent some time considering it. Carolyn Korsmeyer (2012) considers the role of touch,real or imagined, in the aesthetic experience of the genuine. She opens with another example of people responding to ‘the real thing’…”When the Library of Congress put the original Gettysburg Address on display, the line was blocks long. But when they submitted a ‘modern facsimile so accurate that the naked eye of an untrained person could not tell the difference’ … there was no line. People wanted to see the authentic document, the one that Lincoln touched.”

Later in the paper she writes, “Dan Lewis, the Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in California, describes the thrilling privilege of handling books housed in that collection, including Newton’s own copy of the Principia, a first edition of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and Ben Franklin’s manuscript autobiography. Lewis says that being able to handle such rare documents is like ‘being present at the moment of creation.’ ‘Just to be in their presence is an honor.’Such experiences evoke an impression that gaps of time have been momentarily bridged, bringing the past into the present. A visitor to London notes that ‘I went through a door Shakespeare once went through, and into a pub he knew. We sat at a table … and I leaned my head back against a wall Shakespeare’s head once touched, and it was indescribable.’ David Lowenthal observes that ‘The shiver of contact with ancient sites brings to life their lingering barbarity or sanctity, and merely touching original documents vivifies the thoughts and events they described.’” These latter examples bring us much closer to that romantic imagination.

Part of her analysis relies on the idea that actual, physical touch is not actually necessary – it is enough for the potential of touch to be there or for touch to be imaginable. ” I speculate that underlying such encounters is the complex operation of the sense of touch, including the touch that brought the original object into being, the touch of those who lived with it in the past, and the touch of those who continue to value its being and who desire its presence. […] Such behaviour suggests that direct, proximal acquaintance with these objects is the event to savour, even though one rarely is permitted literal touch.
In a sense, though Korsmeyer does not write in these terms, this correlates well with the ideas of the rehearsal of action (see Decety & Grèzes, 2006). However, she combines this with the idea that touch is the ‘veridical sense’, the sense we trust more than others when we are in uncertain terrain.

(To digress for a moment… if touch is essential then perhaps this is why it is harder to imagine cherishing digital objects than physical ones, as Golsteijn et al. (2012) suggest, or perhaps the countervaling metaphor sin the phrase ‘digital objects’ is more than most people’s brains can wrestle with.)

Korsmeyer again… “At its most vulnerable, the experience of being in contact with the real thing conveys an impression that the act of touching possesses a sort of transitivity: that by touching, one becomes a link in a chain that unites one with some original object, with a creative hand, with a remembered or historical event, or with others who have touched the same thing—rather in the way that a magnet transmits its attraction through a chain of paper clips or nails. This appeal can spread in many directions: it appears to connect us to a bygone moment, to bestow awe before venerable historical monuments, wonder at the continued existence of objects of great age, and sentimental attachment to souvenirs, keepsakes, and family heirlooms. […] The value of genuineness and the accompanying evocation of presence with art and historical artefacts suggest a parallel with what has been labelled ‘magical thinking’—demonstrated in the worship of fetishes and relics and in superstitious practices, all related to the problems that Benjamin pointed out with the notion of ‘aura’. ‘Magical thinking’ refers to tendencies of mind that systematically attribute properties to objects that they actually do not possess. First explored as a symptom of primitive mentalities and placed in contrast with scientific thinking, it is now surmised to be a fairly widespread feature of certain kinds of affective responses.”

I find this concept of ‘magical thinking’ really helpful, even if all it has really done is give a name to that class of responses which Bridget exemplified.

To try and further develop this idea, Korsmeyer explores the idea of “‘cognitive penetrability’ of perception and affective response. At issue is the degree to which perception is separable from interpretive judgement. Cognitive impenetrability is a thesis about the modularity of perception, such that what we know about an object does not affect how that object appears to the senses.” Hence cognitive penetrability suggests that what we know about the object shapes the way that we perceive and experience it.

“Both perceptual and emotive arguments for cognitive penetrability can be adapted to account for aesthetic encounters with the genuine. In these circumstances there is no perceptual property to alter because the role of touch is non-sensuous. But the belief that one is in the presence of a real thing (of sufficient rarity and value) is a non-perceptual, doxastic state with phenomenal character. And the experience of the thing itself is altered by this cognitive state, which is mediated by the (actual or implicit) operation of touch, the sense that most acutely occasions a sense of presence. There are no ‘bare’ perceptual differences between a copy and the real thing, inasmuch as a covert switch of replica for original would likely not be noticed. Nonetheless the latter experience, penetrated as it is with belief that one is within touching distance of something rare and awe-inspiring, is affectively different from the former.”

Korsmeyer’s final point is that the emotions we attach to an object are non-transferable. That is, replicas just aren’t the same and never will be. This is where museums are undone by their own principles. If only museums staff would lie more. They could pass off replicas as the real thing and people would respond magically but, for good reason, museums are principled. So the replica must be revealed and the response remain un-evoked. Shame.


Decety, J. & Grèzes, J. (2006) ‘The power of simulation: Imagining one’s own and other’s behavior’, Brain Research, 1079, 4-14

Golsteijn, C., Hoven, E.A.W.H. van den, Frohlich, D. & Sellen, A. (2012). ‘Towards a more cherishable digital object’, Proceedings of Designing Interactive Systems , 11-15 June 2012, Newcastle, United Kingdom

Korsmeyer, C. (2012) ‘Touch and the Experience of the Genuine’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 52, 4, 365-377

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, imagination, Objects, Perception, touch. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Magical Touching

  1. Hester Jones says:

    Reblogged this on Handkind Study and commented:
    Fascinating blog post about touch

  2. Reblogged this on Objects and Remembering and commented:
    Bruce Davenport, who is presenting a paper entitled ‘Sensory Conversation partners: Objects to think, feel and remember with’, discusses the way we ‘attribute properties to objects that they actually do not possess’:

  3. Pingback: Magical Poppies | holding the moment of holding

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