Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
Negotiating Influence Arrowvol 2 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003

Negotiating Influence:
Argentine Tango and a Politics of Touch

Erin Manning

The twentieth century is, from one end to another, the century of tango. We cannot speak of the history of this century excluding tango, nor can we exclude jazz, its twin. Nor flamenco, its mysterious brother.

Horacio Ferrer, in Azzi 1991: 107

Tangere: (latin) to touch.

Oxford English Dictionary

1. Tango, a signifier of darkness and illegitimacy, of desire and counter-culture, is more than a dance. As Horacio Ferrer writes, "before being an artistic expression, before tango came to light as such […] tango was a certain attitude, a way of life adopted by those of diverse cultures" (1995: 11). In its popular representations, Argentine tango is described as a dance that evokes illicit sexual desire through an acrobatics that often looks choreographed. But "Argentine" tango is much more than this mythic evocation of a movement of desire. Tango is everything from a dance of solitudes to a nomadic movement of cultural displacement to a fierce locator of national identity. It is a dance of encounter and disencounter, a voyeuristic embrace of repressed sensuality and a complex network of (mis)understood directions.

2. Like all social tangos, the tango I explore here is improvised. Indeed, it is the improvised nature of tango that fascinates me and makes it possible for me to advance tango as an example of and metaphor for a politics of touch. Since the movements of tango are always to come, it is impossible to speak of "a" tango, of an ideal gesture or a concrete politics of touch. Tango as a signifier, a dance, a metaphor, is an invested attempt to locate myself faced with an other, to locate the other faced with myself, not, first and foremost, a choreographed representation of desire played out on a stage.

3. Although tango could be introduced as the ultimate signifier of Argentine national identity, I do not approach tango from this vantage point, preferring instead to locate tango as a transnational crossing of human and political boundaries, as a politics of touch that displaces notions of sedentary encounters with an other. For me, tango is a movement across time and space, an errant politics that calls out to the nightworld to re-orchestrate its systems of governance and exchange through bodies that emerge not for the gaze of the outside world, but for the inner conversation between two silent partners, moving quietly, eyes half closed, toward dawn.

4.Tango as I encounter it is a peripheral engagement with the world that introduces us to a different way of living with the other. It is a movement that offers the possibility of improvising an encounter with the other, a dance that turns us toward an other to whom we might otherwise not speak, let alone touch. Tango takes place on the edges of neighbourhoods, at the magic time between dusk and dawn, in the periphery of the social order. Its lyrics are about adventure, heartbreak, the clandestine, the murmurs of desire and deception. Originally a music composed by immigrants to Buenos Aires, tango is a dance that is about a movement between here and there, about an exchange between two bodies, about the pain of disconnection and the desire for communication.

5. A product of cultural exchange, tango has never ceased to transform itself through contact with new cultures. As Ramon Pelinski writes, "nomadic tango resides neither entirely on its own terrain, nor entirely on the terrain of the other" (1995: 18). Yet, as Astor Piazzola comments, "in Argentina, everything can change, except tango" (in Pelinski 1995: 27). Tango is a contradiction in terms: even though tango is a transnational crossing of cultures, for many, tango remains a signifier of Argentine national identity. As a result of this paradox, many aficionados of tango resist all transnational implications where tango is concerned, insisting instead that tango is the unique reference of the symbolic identity and territory of Argentine culture.

6. Despite these echoes toward a politics of Argentine national identity, I maintain that tango involves a transculturation, a state of becoming through alterity. Tango is a movement through politics that both reinforces the status quo of the politics of national identity and transgresses these very politics. This play between transgression and appartenance takes place in the weaving of tango’s complex webs, webs entwined around tango’s implicit desire to communicate, through the body, with an other. A dance that must be re-encountered with every new dancer, tango appeals to the senses. It does so through the meticulous movements initiated through improvisation and spontaneity that require an adequate response yet suggest, always, the possibility of subverting the expected.

7. Tango is the dance of the impromptu rethinking of the politics of communication. Tango is the dream of the known played out in the night of the unknown. It is the politics unwritten, yet the palimpsest on which everything political aspires already to have been written. It is the voice of the immigrant displaced through movement. It is the movement of the stranger, echoing in the distant resonance of a music that has many times crossed the world. Foregrounding this improvisational nature of a dance which requests the complete attention of the other, I shall draw a link between the transculturation of a movement of desire – tango – and the possibility of articulating a different kind of politics enunciated through such displacement. This I will call a politics of touch.

A Short History of Tango

8. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, tango was born as a music and a dance. Alienated from the Argentine middle class, tango nonetheless expanded quite quickly in the underworld of Buenos Aires. The expansion of tango took place while Buenos Aires – a city in which more than fifty percent of the population was composed of immigrants – quickly grew from 187 000 to 1 576 000 inhabitants (Ferrer 1972: 146). Argentine society in Buenos Aires at that time was characterized by the presence of an overwhelming majority of solitary men uprooted and socially destabilized by conditions beyond their control. Many of these men frequented cafes and bordellos, first for the women, and then for the tango (De Ipola 1985:15).

9. To speak of tango’s history is to recall, always, that no improvisation – however well documented – can return to its origins. Tango therefore bears the fate of having to be re-told, always differently. Hence, there are many versions of tango’s points of inception and the rationales behind its movements. Some stories tell of an intense competition between men who sought to win the bodies of the women with whom they danced. Some versions speak of a tension through which the male-female embrace was an attempt to heal the racial and class displacement provoked by urbanization and war. Others suggest that tango encounters were a catalyst for racial and class tensions augmented by the European migration avalanche, proposing that tango helped to provoke these encounters and, at the same time, expressed their occurrence.

10. We can surmise, from these various strands of interpretation, that tango as a dance emerged from racial and class conflicts while competing for a place of its own among the dances that were already being danced, pending benediction in the cultural empires of the world. Some say that this competitive stance toward bodies in movement was replayed through the confessional mode of the tangos, suggesting that tangos are public displays of intimate miseries, shameful behaviours, and unjustifiable attitudes. Savigliano argues that, in tango, intimate confessions are the occasion for a spectacle, expressions of the private, personal world, addressed to the public world: "tangos are male because their intimate confessions are mediated through the exposure of female bodies and because they are overwhelmingly written by men. Tangos are male confessions, intimate but not private" (1995: 61).

11. Tango has never been a dance that could be contained. In the early twentieth century, tango had already travelled to Europe, and today Finish tangos are second only to Argentine tangos in their production and dissemination. In fact, between 1962 and 1965, tango was the most popular musical genre in Finland, and this not for a reproduction of a tango born in Argentina, but for a dissemination of a tango native to the aspirations and disappointments of a very particularly Finish population. Finish tangos, like their Argentine counterparts, are passionate, but the Finish passion is not as polyvalent as its predecessor. Finish tangos are slow and the dance is measured, described by some as a rigid interpretation and exposition of emotions and social protestation.

12. From Helsinki to Tokyo to Montreal to Brussels to Nijmegen to Istanbul, tango continues to be danced, altered, communicated and sent back, changed, to Buenos Aires. Tango expresses itself differently from one environment to another, from one couple to another: most often a heterosexual encounter in Buenos Aires, for instance, tango in Nijmegen increasingly blurs gender and sexual boundaries by challenging and changing the roles of the leaders and the followers. Hence, however adamantly tango is ideologically withheld by those who seek to possess it, tango must concurrently be thought of as a music and a dance that lives through flexibility, mutation, evocation, fascination, and migration.

13. Tango begins with a music, a rhythm, a melody. The movements of the dance are initiated by a lead, a direction, an opening to which the follower responds. Tango is an exchange that depends on the closeness of two bodies, willing to engage with one-another. It is a pact for three minutes, a sensual encounter that guarantees nothing but a listening. And this listening must happen on both sides, for a lead is meaningless if it does not convey a message to a follower. As various tango aficionados have pointed out, the lead can never be more than an invitation, as a result of which the movement in response will remain improvised. This dialogue is rich and complex, closer to the heart, perhaps, than many exchanges between strangers and lovers.

A Politics of Tango?

14. "Politics," writes Agamben, "is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings" (2000: 59). I want to suggest that tango, a transcultural movement of desire, can be envisioned as a political gesture toward the other. Tango is an exile of the self into the unknown world of the self as other. Tango is a migration into the realm of communicability that resides at the heart of desire: "The history of the tango is a story of encounters between those who should never have met or between those who, having met, will remain forever disencountered" (Savigliano 1995: xv). This political moment of (dis)encounter is initiated through an embrace that rarely lasts beyond the duration of the tango itself. This encounter, relentless and short-lived, proposes the violation of critical distances, inviting at once intimacy, tension and conflict.

15. The tango embrace is the political gesture with which the medium – the mediality of tango – is initiated. It is this embrace, across time and space, which invites the emergence of a medium, a milieu independent of pre-ordained constraints. Yet, this medium can also feed an already troubled relationship between self and other, between woman and man, leader and follower. In this case, the embrace is a means to an end, signalling a familiar restoring of the genre, of the relation, of the expectations of movement. Yet, this embrace can also challenge the concept of the milieu through a movement of desire – a politics of touch – which engages in the means, that is, in the potential of listening to the breath, the body, the distance and the closeness of another human being, a listening to what might be considered the very ethics-in-deconstruction of humanity.

16. Agamben continues, "because being-in-language is not something that could be said in sentences, the gesture is essentially always a gesture of not being able to figure something out in language" (2000: 58). The gesture of turning to the other, of inventing a movement with another whom I do not know and cannot anticipate, is a gesture attentive to a silence in which I am exposed as a body in motion. In the case of tango, my language is what I reveal to you in the intimacy of the embrace, a language that introduces you to a movement I call my own, that invites you to respond to a direction I initiate. With your response we can call forth a politics of touch, an errant politics of communication, a transnational movement of desire.

17. The theorization of a politics of touch involves an appreciation of the manner in which human beings organize their lives in time and space. At its most concrete, this mode of living is symbolized through an appurtenance to the nation-state system wherein history and geography are confined to a comprehensive notion of time and space. Tango often crosses this chronotope, inviting and inciting me to re-formulate the distance between myself and an other. Tango, operating here as a metaphor for the distances we place between self and other, works as a trope through which I attempt to delineate a different way of facing the other, a different way of belonging in the world.

18. Aristotle observes throughout his writings that the most common primary perception is touch. Touch, Aristotle suggests, is necessary to the other senses. The medium that corresponds to touch, according to Aristotle, is the flesh, and the element of touch is the earth. Aristotle somewhat complicates this understanding of touch by suggesting that the organ of touch "must be inside us" (De Anima II: 11, 423b). The invisibility of the organ that represents touch leads Aristotle to ask himself whether touch is one sense or several. This is an important question since touch is, for Aristotle, the first sense, the one most necessary for the maintenance of life: "The well-developed sense of touch is the condition of man’s intelligence" (De Anima II: 9, 421a 7ff). Touch for Aristotle is the sense one cannot live without, the sense that human beings have just for the sake of being, whereas the other senses, Aristotle suggests, "we have for the sake of well-being" (De Anima III: 13, 435a 11ff, my emphasis). Touch thus becomes known as the "common sense," not something above, or higher than the separate senses, but their common nature.

19. The body is a sensory apparatus. Yet, the senses are difficult to grasp, difficult to condense into theories of movement. For the body senses in layers, in textures and juxtapositions that defy strict organization into a semiotic system. This is already apparent in the early work on the senses, from Aristotle to Augustine to Diderot, where we find not a convergence of theoretical understandings of the senses, but a continual re-theorizing, a re-imagining of where the senses exist in relation to the body and the mind. Philo suggests, for instance, that in Genesis, Adam is seen as mind, whereas Eve is seen as the senses. This separation between male and female, mind and body is sustained throughout the centuries, to be located flagrantly in the work of Descartes, amongst others.

20. For Philo, the senses are responsible for the enslaving allurement of the objects that surround our bodies. The sensory mechanisms are victims of the environment: beauty enslaves sight, good food enslaves taste. Thankfully, Philo contends, reason can govern these dangerous senses: "Mind is superior to sense-perception," he writes (Legum Allegoriae III 452f). The mind here is compared to the governor of a city and the senses allegorized through the image of a loss of control of this protected city. If the senses are given too much power, Philo suggests, the same confusion will arise as in a house where the slaves take over. Kept at bay (in the body of the woman, for instance) the senses can however be faithful guardians, keeping us to the straight and narrow. Touch here is bracketed by sight, where sight is conceived of as the closest sense in proximity to the mind and, by extension, to the heavens.

21. In the classical period, Lucretius writes that that sense-perception is dependent on sense-organs, hence on the body. His contention is that when the body dies, it loses its sense-organs, and therefore the senses are linked to the body’s life source. Lucretius does not treat touch as a separate sense, but, similarly to Aristotle, understands touch to be a condition of the other four senses. Distancing himself from the work of Philo, Lucretius brings the senses back to life, suggesting even that the senses are a condition for intellectual life (Vinge 1975: 31). This is countered by both Cicero and Heraclitus, according to whom "the soul or the mind has an existence of its own inside the five senses, which are not in themselves able to conceive anything" (Vinge 1975: 34). Here, the senses function as windows to the soul. This line of thinking calls forth that of the Christian Cicero, Lactantius, who similarly suggests that the soul lives inside the senses. Yet, Lactantius does warn against the pleasures of the senses, reminding us that pleasures must be subdued by virtue. Hence, for Lactantius, touch is the most dangerous of all the senses. Lactantius sees touch as linked first to sexual pleasure, and hence "to be kept back most of all, as it damages most of all" (Divinae Institutiones 563).

22. From Plato to Philo to Cicero to Lactantius, man continues to be portrayed as the temple or the citadel, with the senses as guards. This tradition continues with Augustine, who argues that the senses are instruments both of knowledge and seduction, useful for the "inner man" to attain knowledge of God, yet dangerous when used for pleasure. Again, touch is demonized, seen as sexual temptation, theorized as "the vain desire to experience by means of the flesh what is disguised by the names of knowledge and science" (X:35). For Augustine, the senses are mediators between humanity and God, occupying a key position in the search for the divine.

23. This brief history of work on the senses exhibits a certain politics of classification as regards the senses. Not only is touch seen as the basest of the senses, but where the danger of the senses comes into play, woman is often invoked. Touch is the sense most likely to represent danger to the potential disruption of the mind/body dialectic, since touch refuses to be symbolized as other to the body. Nothing about touch is divine, nothing about touch is exclusionary. Touch, as a complexification of the body’s relationship to and beyond its skin, does not seem as useful as the other senses (vision, in particular) in the organization and classification of the body according to the dictates of the mind.

24. Despite the fact that the focus on the mind in opposition to the senses is carried out through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the work of philosophers such as Locke and Descartes, whose writing rests on the question of whether the mind works independently of the body, touch continues to evade representation as a sense that might be able to draw a discrete line between bodies of thought and bodies of/in movement. Hence, when a thinker such as Descartes suggests that sense-experiences are necessary for the formation of concepts as long as these sense-experiences are organized within the mind (as opposed to the body), it is difficult to conceive of touch as one of these senses to which Descartes refers. Hence, despite the fact that Pierre Gassendi replies to this tradition with his suggestion that "every idea in the mind has its origin in the senses. Every idea either goes through a sense, or is formed by what goes through a sense," (Operaomnia I 92) touch seems to be relegated outside philosophy (outside the mind/body dialectic), and hence open, perhaps, to a different kind of politics, one that might both escape and challenge the policing border of political philosophy.

25. When touch is evoked in philosophy, as it is, for instance, in the work of Diderot, it is dealt with only peripherally. While Diderot argues that touch is the most profound and most philosophical of the senses (1875: 352), he does not elaborate as to the philosophical or political consequences of placing touch at the origins of sense. Indeed, as one explores work such as that of Diderot and Condillac it soon becomes apparent that the reason touch cannot evoke a politics distinct from the philosophy that refutes its dangerous reciprocity is that the mind continues to preside over the body, as sustained by Diderot’s claim that "reason, although dependent on the senses, has authority over them, and as it cannot be reduced to mere sensation, the individual intellectual differences, not the quality of the sensations, ultimately determine judgment and character" (in Vinge 1975: 140). Spurred by Diderot, Rousseau adds that sensation and judgment cannot be the same: "My will is independent of my senses," writes Rousseau (Emile 123).

26. Since the nineteenth century, few philosophers or political theorists have concerned themselves with an exploration of the sensual mechanisms that drive the body and force it out of the grids of intelligibity that would like to capture it for service to the state. This, in and of itself, is quite interesting, for it suggests that the senses cannot easily be located within the vocabulary of state-sovereignty which has become increasingly dominant as a system of truth over the course of the past four hundred years. Without incorporating a vocabulary of the senses, the state can claim that "the" body-politic is stable and moves only unidirectionally, a body-politic that resists the contradictions of the textures of dissent in order to walk faithfully in a straight political line away from the other who must remain outside. In this articulation of the body-politic, the body cannot become other and the state cannot be disavowed, for there is no movement, either of or within the body. This is the violence of the state, a violence touch may bring to the fore if we consider touch as a reminder that there can be no "body-politic" that is not continuously touching an other whose movements it emulates and disseminates. There is no body that stands-still, moving from point to point, unidirectionally. Does this make sense? There are only touching and un-touching bodies in movement. Is this common knowledge? Is such a politics of touch common sense?

27. Touch (as common sense?) draws us, once more, to the political realm. How interesting that touch, the sense I am calling forth as a movement of espacement that elicits an ethico-politics in deconstruction, is also the name of a consensus-oriented political movement. For isn’t common sense often associated with a politics that makes assumptions about its constituents’ knowledge-base? Does common sense not connote a certain appurtenance within a pre-defined group? In this regard, is common sense not the name one could give to most "democratic" political systems inaugurated within the realm of state-sovereignty? "For the common good" is the practice and the promise of a consensual "democratic" politics, is it not? What does touch have to do with common sense? How strange that touch should re-emerge like this, in direct aggressive contradiction to my processual thoughts about the body in a movement of desire toward the other. How strange that touch, the sense I imagine works against the state apparatus, is evoked as a mechanism of this apparatus.

28. Perhaps not so strange after all. For touch, as it concerns politics, ethics, and the body, seems to exist both in the realm of multiplicity and uni-directionality. That is, touch and/as the body, ethics and politics has been conceived as a peon of the nation-state, the most "common" of all chronotopes, even as it continues create, via bodies of difference, its own, distinct chronotopes. Touch can therefore be seen both as the promise of commonality and its demise. This seems to me to be a warning to remember not to assume that "commonality" resides only within the realm of state politics. Commonality is a virus that infests every attempt to normalize an experience, even one of reciprocity. We know what it is to hope that our touch will be accepted only to find no response, no contact. We also know what it is to attempt to convince ourselves that our touch was indeed reciprocated, that we have been received, that we have created a responsive third-body-space. We know what it is to ignore the violence of a touch which does not invent a third space but cuts across it, defiling it. This is violence, the worst violence, the violence of (the) common sense.

29. The internal vocation of politics is the unification of aims and the organization of these aims into a unique spatio-temporal whole. Politics does not happily suffer tears in its social fabric: politics must be common, and where commonality cannot be located, a line must be drawn to create a fissure between the inside and the outside, between the known and the unknown, the self and the other. Thus, politics takes care of the distribution of public power, inaugurating a political relation that is always a relationship of forces. This relationship of forces carries within its vocabulary the possibility of domination and violence that often comes to the fore as a result of an imbalance in social relations. Each body must be put in its place. The securing of the body is necessary for the distribution of power to adequately inscribe the social order with its own system of intelligibility. The body becomes intelligible insofar as it becomes common. Intelligibility which resists commonality cannot be articulated within the language of the nation-state.

30. Yet there always escapes from the body-politic’s grids of intelligibility a disarticulated remains. It is this remains that contests the sovereignty of the nation-state, even when resistance is not enacted with this purpose in mind. Touch is one of the mediums through which the body can resist the state since the language of touch in most cases exceeds that of the nation-state. In these instances, touch reminds us that we cannot know the body as the state claims we do, for no body is so thoroughly articulated. Every body moves differently, (in)different to the state.

31. Touching the other in a reciprocal gesture of difference underscores the incompleteness of the state which remains incapable of fully subsuming the body into its realm. Touch also emphasizes the difference between the violence of the body as body and the violence of the body as state. What we know about the state is that it cannot operate without violence: state power cannot exist unless it holds the ultimate and exclusive right to force. The body, on the other hand, cannot exist if it is not touched. The body is therefore about reciprocity, whereas the state is concerned with sovereignty. When the state takes over the body, it attempts to create a bond of reciprocity that is solely hierarchical. When the body leaves the state, what the body finds is the capacity to create movement through space and space through movement. The body departs from a sovereign territorialized bounded space to a space that traverses time, a space that cannot be cleanly delineated but through which a juxtaposition and a convergence take place that multiply space through textual layerings. Space grows with the body and shrinks with the state.

32. To touch a politics that exceeds a state-centred governmentality necessitates a vocabulary that resists and subverts the language of the state. Of course, language always carries the traces of coercion as much as those of difference. I am not suggesting, therefore, that I can appropriate a language that will not, always, in some sense, lead me back to the system of state-sovereignty and its adjacent vocabularies. I am, instead, offering a vocabulary of resistance, a vocabulary improvised through the gesture of a particular dance, tango. This gesture, as I suggested earlier, is one I experience when I dance, not one I associate with a regulatory dynamics that would insist on a "truth" of either the "Argentine" or the "tango." Argentine tango works here as an experience of movement, of touch, of the other, a metaphor of the crossing of boundaries, an engagement with an interculturality that offers a lexicon that will assist me in thinking through a politics of touch.

Gestures Toward an Other

33. Agamben suggests that the gesture is "that dimension of language that is not exhausted in any communication of meaning and that, in this way, marks the point at which language appears in its mere capacity to communicate" (1999: 22). Gesture, understood in these terms, is the very potentiality of language:

to examine the pure existence of language, freed from the form of any presupposition, is to consider a community inconceivable according to any representable condition of belonging: a "coming community," without identity, defined by nothing other than its existence in language as irreducible, absolute potentiality (Agamben 1999: 23).

As a potential reaching-out-toward-the-other, the gesture evokes an instance in which nothing is being produced. "The gesture […] opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human," writes Agamben (2000: 57), thereby challenging the linear organization of means and ends. A gesture explores the medium – be it the movement, the touch, the word – as a means not of transforming potentiality into actuality, but as a way of eclipsing actuality by placing the emphasis on the moment, on the exchange. As Agamben writes, gesture "allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them" (2000: 58).

34. A gesture interrupts language in the moments when language attempts to convert itself to an actuality. Challenging the notion that being-in-language can be said as such, a gesture draws our attention to the challenges within expression, within language, leading us to the ephemeral realm of the unsayability of words as completed thoughts. In this way, gesture acts as a force that interrupts language’s (in)stability, returning language to itself as a mode of communication, where communication consists of reaching out, potentially, toward the other. Gesture reinforces the fact that communication is not linear, that language cannot concretely be symbolized, that the words that "reach" the other cannot be completely contained within a system of governance. It is in this regard that gesture intercepts the process of allowing language to reign at the heart of the construction of the polis. Certainly, language and/as gesture can organize the polis, but it does so more in the disorganization of like-minded people than by encouraging conformity.

35. "Gesture," writes Agamben, "is not an absolutely non-linguistic element but, rather, something closely tied to language" (1999: 77). Where gesture is concerned, language is both mediation and immediate. As does the gesture, language reaches out to touch the other while mediating the space between self and other.

What unites human beings among themselves is not a nature, a voice, or a common imprisonment in signifying language; it is the vision of language itself and, therefore, the experience of language’s limits, its end. A true community can only be a community that is not presupposed (Agamben 1999: 47).

As the unpresupposed, the gesture is that which mediates language’s immediacy. The gesture is a moment in language that is not exhausted in communication. Rather than being exhausted in and by language, gesture in a sense exceeds language, exposing communication’s incommunicability, capturing language in its moments of silence.

36. Gesture as such has nothing to say. Kommerell suggests that speech is the originary gesture from which all consequent gestures derive. He writes that "what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as […] the other side of language, the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, its speechless dwelling in language" (in Agamben 1999: 78). Gesture is the admission of being lost in language, the moment of engagement in the silence of expression, the unsaid in the relationship to the (self as) other that "felicitously establishes itself in this emptiness of language and, without filling it, makes it into humankind’s most proper dwelling" (Agamben 1999: 78-9).

37. Gestures can certainly negotiate both transgression and appurtenance. What interests me about a gesture is not, therefore, its strict positioning within a politics of touch versus a sovereign politics. I am concerned, rather, with the manner in which gesture provides another vocabulary of the political. I am interested in gesture as the potential rendering-foreign of the bond superimposed on the relation between self and other often understood as "community," the bond that can be understood as the unspoken pact that polices all relationships, be they those obviously involved in state-centred organizations or those on the fringes of state communities. For, even though gestures are also rehearsed, falsified, mediated by a lack of mediation, by a consensual thinking that privileges certain exchanges over others, as a device of and in language, gestures continuously slip outside the grids of intelligibility of organized structures, resisting containment, calling forth a vocabulary of the political that can and do exceed sovereign methods.

38. The surface of the body is a thinking surface. It is a gestural, linguistic, sensational skin that protects us while opening us toward and rendering us vulnerable to the other. Our bodies are the bodies without organs of the political, bodies formed and deformed by the division and sharing of communities, of communal and uncommon bodies. Our bodies are resistances – to ourselves, to each other, resistances to knowledge, to language, to touch, as well as to ignorance, to being touched, to being meaningful, to being there, to being as such. Touching the limit, our bodies touch each other and themselves, each time challenging and perhaps deforming the body politic, questioning the boundaries of what it means to touch and be touched, to live together, to live apart, to belong, to exclude.

39. Turning to touch as a political gesture, I mean to bring the body to politics differently. Touch links bodies, human bodies, bodies of thought, reminding us at every turn that we cannot occupy two spaces simultaneously: we cannot speak and listen at the same time, nor can we touch and be touched simultaneously, unless we are willing to be less attentive, to feel less deeply, to acknowledge the other and ourselves only peripherally. As a political discourse, touch is an utterance geared toward an other to whom I have decided to expose myself, skin to skin. Touch is an ethical discourse because I cannot touch you without being responsible for doing the touching. For touch must always indicate its source. I cannot touch from whence I listen, nor can I speak from whence I am touched. Touching as a linguistic gesture is a moment of language which is silent, an eclipse in the search for meaning, a recognition of the incommensurability of both self and other.

40. Touch reminds us that bodies are impenetrable. It is your surface that I risk exposing when I reach toward you and place my hand against yours. The impenetrability of your body is what initiates this political moment wherein there can be no dream of an original sin, no drowning in a complete knowledge, no sense of an ultimate recognition. Touching resists these tendencies, reminding us that all gestures are incomplete, that to reach toward the other can never be conceived of as more (or less) than the act of reaching, for the other cannot be discovered as such. It is only your impenetrability which is penetrable. And this impenetrability is often beyond words, though not beyond language. As I touch you, there is only the saying, the reaching.

41. What makes touch such an interesting concept is the fact that I cannot desist trying to say what cannot be said about the body and my desire to touch it. I cannot stop touching the speech of the body. It is here that the political moment is exposed, a moment of transition, a moment of incomprehensibility spurred by a desire to comprehend myself, to comprehend the other. Within this incomprehension, the body is the articulation. My body is the medium through which touch can be negotiated, my body is the receptor for the politico-linguistic gesture that reminds me that my body is not one. Touch does not allow me to forget the contradiction of my body which is both "the dark reserve of sense, and the dark sign of this reserve" (Nancy 1994: 20).

42. Nancy writes: "Sign of itself, and being-itself of the sign: such is the double formula of the body in all states, in all its possibilities" (1994: 21). Wounded by the state, and a wound within the state, the body opens unto itself and unto the other. But the wound also closes itself, thick with scar-tissue, anxious to touch and be touched, lulled into a commonsense revolution by a policing that holds the other (and its wound) at bay. Yet the wound itself also lives within the body, resisting the closure of meaning, of sense. And this resistance, this urge to touch the other, wound against wound, creates a community of resistance, a complex, disorderly, incommensurable community of those who cannot keep themselves from reaching out toward the world.

43. Offering myself is always possible. It is a potentiality that can never be confirmed as an actuality, for there is no offering that is stable in time and space, there is no offering which takes place without remainder, without return. I offer myself and, in doing so, I open myself to receive. Within this exchange, what is at stake is the engendering and sharing of new bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of knowledge. Sense, my sense of your difference, the sensation I experience when I touch your skin, this sense makes sense to me only insofar as it creates a body of work, a growing experience of what it means to receive the gift of touch. Touching you, I begin to write a corpus. This corpus tells the story, always different, of bodies reaching out toward one another, the story of the separation and sharing of bodies, the transposition of the being-body, divided, always divided from itself and from its sense, excribed within a corpus I can never quite articulate.

Te toucher toi

44. The body is not knowledge, though it can act as its trace. The body can embody meaning as trace, but only as excription, never as inscription. In other words, the body excribes meaning, gives meaning to an other, without holding meaning prisoner. As I reach out to touch you, I allow the exchange to have meaning, a meaning that remains transitory, sensual and sensitive. Nancy describes the thought of the body as a double genitive: "the thought that is the body itself and the thought we think, we seek to think on the subject of the body" (1994: 27). The thought of the body, this thought that touches me when you reach toward me, is a thought rich with sensations, from violence to compassion, from generosity to disdain. It is a thought that does not seek to know, a thought that remains mediated, dispersed in incommensurability, in the impossibility of communication. My thinking body is not an articulate body in the sense that it already knows. My thinking body is only articulate in the sense that it cannot do otherwise than articulate.

45. Nancy writes:

Touching one another with their mutual weights, bodies do not become undone, nor do they dissolve into other bodies, nor do they fuse with a spirit – this is what makes them, properly speaking, bodies (1994: 28).

It is through touching you that my body is a body, for my body cannot be otherwise than absolutely singular and shared. At this limit between separation and sharing, this political limit that marks the edge of the body, rendering the very notion of community incommunicable, at this limit, touch is personified as a political gesture. Touching is the thought of the limit, the act through which I embody myself. When the limit is abolished (policed, for instance), bodies run the risk of becoming/seeming penetrable or dissolving into one another. For an absolute body/singularity, we are all others, or there is no other.

46. The limit never completely disappears: our bodies are in their very corporeality limits in time and space, and so the limit is marked, again and again, in the reaching out that occurs despite the strictest regulations of the national body-politic. This limit, even when it appears only momentarily, continuously reminds us – even when we do not want to know – that parts of a corpus cannot combine into a whole. There is no whole, no totality of the body, there is no such thing as the body. There is no body, yet there are corpuses, many of them, reaching out, touching, being touched, corpuses that are recitations of multiplicities, of pluralities evoked by touching bodies. These corpuses are political potentialities, acts in the making, movements toward the other. There is no completely docile body. There is only the policing of a corpus that writes the body as docile.

47. Hence, one might argue that touch functions through a double genitive. When I touch myself, I recognize myself as other. I touch you twice, once in my gesture toward you and once in the experience of feeling your body, your skin against mine. Tactile perception is defined as a loss of objectivity, or an encounter with a wholly new sense of what is subjective. My skin feels my contact with you. I cannot approach you tactilely without feeling that approach. I touch (you). From your body, I elicit a response, a response not necessarily felt or acknowledged through words, but through a return of the touching I initiate.

48. If embodiment is a precarious interplay between inside and outside, embodiment can also be conceived of as that which allows subject-object encounters to take place within a socio-historical (political) context, for a double-touching, an embodiment of touch, is a touching that can never take place unilaterally. Touch belongs first to the other: it comes to me from the other, already addressing itself to the other. Touch instantiates an interruption, it forces me to turn toward you, not necessarily face to face, but always skin to skin, hand to flesh, flesh to flesh. Touch is the beginning of a corpus that becomes a language of self and/as other, a language that sometimes remains a silence, a hidden (in)communication. With touch, I enter (into communication with) you, I cross the interval between me and you, but I do not become you, for your flesh against mine always returns me to myself. You are untouchable, and what I touch is that untouchable quality. I negotiate that untouchability, that surface that cannot be penetrated, the unknown and (in)finite distance which separates me and you.

49. The surface is untouchable, yet demands to be touched. Without touch, the surface remains unarticulated, without language. It is the gesture toward you, the touch against your flesh, which makes you accountable to me, and me accountable to me. It is this gesture that renders the exchange of subjectivities political. But there is a limit. For flesh is always at the limit: flesh is always the impenetrable that I have no choice but to resist, to accept as that which I cannot know. This incommensurability, the incommensurability of the surface, the impossibility of the entre-deux, passes through a chronotope – the space of a body, of a corpus, the time of the moment – resisting any idea of place as given, of time as containor. Touch exceeds time and space, it reorganizes them, reminding us, through every gesture, that time and space must be exceeded, re-populated by sentient bodies.

50. This space of my body touching yours is a spacing, an espacement, before it is a space. It opens toward an opening, an interval, an incorporeal surface. To touch, in this context, implies modifying, changing, displacing, questioning, inciting a movement which is always a kinetic experience. Touching is a directionality toward that limit which can never be exceeded, for it is not a limit in stasis, but a limit in movement. I touch what I cannot quite reach, I am touched by an other I cannot quite comprehend, I abstain from touching what I touch with an abstinence that holds within itself the desire to touch, to feel, to sense the other.

51. There is no touch in the singular. To touch is always to touch something, someone. I touch not by accident, but with a determination to feel you, to reach you.
Touch implies a transitive verb, it implies that I can, that I will reach toward you and allow the texture of your body to make an imprint on mine. Touch produces an event.

We should therefore, without playing, ever, on the words, listen (entendre) and tender (tendre) tenderly these words. Tender and tender. […] To tender is to offer, or give, what can be given without rendering, that is to say without exchange, or without waiting for the other to render – or to arrive (sans attendre que l’autre vienne rendre – ou se rendre) (Derrida 2000: 111).

Touching you, I propose to you to receive, to touch. To touch is not to manipulate. I cannot force you to touch, me. I can coerce you, I can take your body against your will, but I cannot evoke purposefully, in you, the response to my reaching toward you. To touch is to tender, to be tender, to reach out tenderly.

52. Perhaps this tendering is always, in some sense, a violence, for it can do violence to my subjectivity, violently infringing upon yours. We never touch more than a limit, and to touch a limit, to experience a limit, is to face a certain violence, to be face to face with the impossibility of ultimate penetration, to take into consideration our desire, my desire to penetrate you fully. To touch is to cross violently into your space, to encounter a surface, an edge, a contour. To touch is to feel my own limit, the limits of my contours, of my surfaces, of my body in relation to yours. I share my surface in the moment of touch, I interrupt myself, I touch myself.

"Touching the goal" [scoring] is to risk missing it. But an origin is not a goal. The End, like the Principle, is a form of the Other. To touch an origin [to begin], is not to miss it: it is to properly expose ourselves to it. […] We touch ourselves inasmuch as we exist. To touch (ourselves) is what renders us "us" and there is no other secret to discover or to hide behind the touch itself, behind the "with" of co-existence (Nancy 1996: 32-3).

53. To touch is also to share. This sharing takes place as a trace, a detour, of the other, for the other. This sharing is absence more than it is presence, it is a moment, eclipsed in time. When I touch you I do not tell a simple story, I do not contain the experience within a pre-conceived narrative. To touch is to open myself to the possibility of a story I have not yet heard, to an unworked work, a narrative without a beginning and an end. To speak – to touch – a surface evokes this undecidability of/in time and space, a dilemma of the entre-deux that necessitates both a coming-towards and a coming-between. I touch tactfully. I make the choice not to attempt to envelop the space of our sharing. Or I cross this space, violently accosting you with an attack that I would prefer to speak of as blows rather than as moments of touch. For does touch not imply reciprocity? To be able to touch is to conceive of a simultaneity that requires the courage to face the in-between. When I touch you I face myself, I face you. This is a finite effort, an effort firmly lodged within a willed present. I survive because I am in contact with you. "Touch signifies ‘being in the world’ for a finite being" (Derrida 2000: 161). There is no world without touch. There is no politics without touch.

54. If touch is symbolized as that which makes the world possible for me as a subject, it follows that touch, in some sense, is a political gesture toward the world. As I reach toward the other, I discern the other as an entity in my world, and, in doing so, I create spaces of intersection between one-another. The gesture makes itself felt in the decision to risk crossing that space of the entre-deux which makes communication with the other both possible and insurmountable. Faced with an other, I experience a being-with that must remain, always, a being-without, a simultaneous moment of feeling the direction of your gaze, of your body, and knowing that this touch, though directed at me, will serve to mark the separation, the schism between you and me. This is a politics of touch: the moment when I recognize that to face an other is to face difference.

55. A gesture toward the other – a politics of touch – cannot be conceived of as something static. When we think of politics through touch, we must recognize that, like touch, politics is that which orients me toward the other in a movement, in a directionality that is ongoing. A politics that is a politics of touch evokes a displacement of terrain – where, often, the terrain from which I diverge is much more familiar, more comprehensible, more certain – a displacement which produces affinities, attractions, mirages, magnetisms and divergences, ruptures, fissures and dissociations. A politics of touch is not comfortable, not reproducible, not knowable. There is nothing about a politics of touch that would allow me to relax in a fantasy of continuity and infinity. A politics of touch is about the finite surface that I must reach toward if I am to challenge what it means to be(touched)-in-the-world.

56. A politics of touch is based on the logic of disagreement, of misunderstanding. Words in circulation, gestures in movement: this is an errant politics I seek. The political, in this sense, is not the exercise of power, for in conflating politics and power, we have a tendency to confine politics to the state. What is proper to politics is lost if politics is thought as a specific way of living. Politics must therefore not be defined on the basis of a pre-existing subject. Politics must always be in relation. Politics – a politics of touch – "exists" only when I reach out to you, consciously, allowing myself to engage with your surface as the movement of your body that re-arranges time and space. A politics of touch is dissensus, where dissensus is not the confrontation between interests or opinions but the manifestation of a limit between one-another. Dissensus is what I must acknowledge when I reach out to touch you. Dissensus rejects any pre-constituted communicative subjectivity, for at the heart of dissensus is the knowledge that I am no more (or less) constituted than is the other whom I reach toward. Consensus, on the other hand, is the reduction of politics to the police. Consensus is the end of politics, the silencing of the political, the impossibility of touch, of reciprocity, of difference.

57. A politics of touch implies a continual return, an exchange of and in the political. A politics of touch is the affirmation that we can make space and time for politics, where this space and time can exceed the current state (of affairs). Politics of touch are tactical discursive tactics.

More than a style, more than a manner, of fingers or hands, we find here a movement of the body, a syntax that calculates without calculating, of the whole body, "in flesh and blood," to encounter things, to be in the world, and to touch it without touching it (Derrida 2000: 248).

The body, the corpus is flesh, limited, wounded, challenged and challenging. The body senses rather than consents. To touch is to engage in a con-sensing that is confronted by the spectre of incommunicability, of dissensus, of unknowability. The challenge, the terrible violence of a politics of touch, is that is excribes presence, denying me the possibility of presenting myself to as you always already whole. Touch faces the trace, effacing you as presence, inviting you to be a corpus in writing, in process, in touch.

58. "Because to touch […] is to allow myself to be touched by touch […] by the ‘flesh’ that I touch and that becomes touching as well as touched" (Derrida 2000: 312). A politics of touch touches touch. This touch remains incalculable, for touch evokes dissymmetry, reminding me that the political must remain uncertain, uncounted. Yet, as Nancy writes, "we must not give ‘touch’ credit too easily, and we must especially not believe that we could touch the sense of what it means to touch" (1992: 13). To touch is to excribe touch, as a verb, as a terminology, to deflect and question its insertion in a vocabulary that would seek to stabilize politics and/as the body once more. To touch is to acknowledge that I must also be touched by you in order to touch you. "In the ‘touching you(r)self’ (se toucher toi) the ‘self’ is as indispensable as the ‘you’" (Derrida 2000: 326).

59. The sensuality of tango is evoked through a politics of touch that makes itself felt through the intent listening to(ward) the other which is at the heart of this improvised dance. The attention to a language that is carried within the movements of the body and the pulsing of the familiar music is a listening that carves a space within the body’s sensual limits, limits that must respond to the other, that must remain open to the other. In the best cases, there is not one dance to be danced, but a myriad of possibilities brought to light by the manner in which two people, often foreign to one another, respond to each other. I lead, you follow, yet even as I lead, I follow your response, intrigued by the manner in which we interpret and touch one another.

60. In this improvised encounter with the other, communicability is at stake. Mafud writes:

Tanguidity is more than a song, a step or a dance figure. It is an authentic cosmovision, an interpretation of existence founded on subjectivity, on intuition and on the spontaneous and thoughtful observation of reality and the universe" (1966: 14).

Tango, writes Shuhei Hosokawa, "is philosophy, it is soul, it is life itself" (1995: 290). "Tango knocks in a particularly insistent manner at the open door of our encounter with ourselves," writes Pierre Monette (1995: 326). Argentine tango exists in the absence of a defined space or time. Tango precedes the present and diverts from the past, offering itself only once in an encounter with the other that remains to be invented. Tango is a hesitation, a troubling exposition of our fears of not reaching the other, an orgiastic discovery that the body we share with the other can be felt and heard in its differences and similarities, in its limitations and exaggerations. Tango is one of the most alienating and sensual experiences two strangers can share. Always in reference to the exile of its displaced roots, tango is a voice where the desire to listen is burdened by the sadness of the ephemerality of the encounter with the other who will remain other. Tango is the deeply satisfying acknowledgement by the other that I have been heard, if only for a moment.

61. Tango speaks a complex language, especially when involved in a politics of touch that exceeds a passive engagement with the other. In these instances, tango produces an engagement with the other that challenges ordinary politics of belonging. For, a politics of touch is a challenging politics, embodied, in this case, in a dance that must always resist the notion of a fundamental accomplishment. Hence, a politics of touch experienced in and through tango is always, in some sense, an inaccessible politics. Tango is a dance that eludes me even as I move toward an-other, touching another with my desire to communicate. As a consequence, tango will always exist in the fissures of life where I do not attempt to hold things in place, where I do not readily find my place. Born of disillusionment and disorientation, the music and dance of immigration gives its name to all forms of exile and post-national attachments. There are no origins to this dance that must always return to new beginnings, to different encounters with an-other. "If tango has a history," writes Pierre Monette, "it is all it has: this is why we constantly return to it. This music of the deterritorialized has no other geography than that of errancy" (1995: 332).

62. Tango as a political gesture is the exhibition of the mediality between me and you, between my interpretation and your creation, between my lead and your response. Mediality makes the process visible: there is only means, no end in sight. Tango allows the mediality of experience to shine through, opening an ethical dimension in the relation, celebrating the sphere of that which cannot be known. Of course, not all tango appreciates this challenge. Politics is never simple or straightforward. At its most common, tango celebrates the defined roles of self and other, relishing in the segregation of difference, of common sense. But even then, tango demands a response, a response that can never accurately be predicted.

63. Tango is the dance of the milieu – the in-between. Incapable, like the immigrant, of tracing its roots, tango never finds its rightful place, dancing instead at the borders of existence in the interloping worlds between here and there. It is not the dance of cities or countries, but the dance of the ghetto, of the space that cannot be accurately named or defined. Tango’s importance resides in the velocity of the movements that traverse its experience of listening to and feeling the other, the other who enters and remains in-between, the other I touch, the other who touches me.

Erin Manning is a Canada Research Chair in Art, Culture and Technology in the Faculty of Fine Arts (and teaches in Film Studies) at Concordia. Recent publications include
Ephemeral Territories: Representing Nation, Home and Identity in Canada (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2003). This essay forms part of a larger project on touch, Transnational Movements of Desire and a Politics of Touch (forthcoming). Email:


Agamben, Giorgio. (2000) Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo
Binetti & Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Le toucher – Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée, 2000.

Ferrer, Horacio. (1995) "Les tangos vagabonds," in Tango Nomade. Montreal:

Hosokawa, Shuhei. (1995) "Le tango au Japon avant 1945: Formation, déformation,
transformation," in Tango Nomade. Montreal: Tryptique.

Monette, Pierre. (1995) "Serie tango: Le milieu du tango à Montreal," in Tango
Montreal: Tryptique.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. Paris: Galilée, 1994.

Panagia, Davide. (2001) "Ceci n’est pas un argument: An Introduction to the Ten
Theses," in Theory and Event (5:3).

Pelinski, Ramon. (1995) "Le tango nomade," in Tango Nomade. Montreal:

Sabato, Ernesto. (1997) Tango Discusión y Clave. Buenos Aires: Losada.

Savigliano, Marta. (1995) Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder:
Westview Press.

The URL for this article is:

© borderlands ejournal 2003


To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810