There is a plant called the “touch-me-not balsam”, in English. Its Latin name, which is impatiens noli-tangere, seems to be much more interesting. This plant turns out to be not only impatient (impatiens), but also unwilling to be touched (noli-tangere). This Latin name refers to the words that the resurrected Jesus directed to Mary Magdalene: noli me tangere, meaning “do not touch” or “do not stop me”. And it becomes understandable in the context of some properties of touch-me-not balsam, namely: the ripe fruits of this plant twist their walls and throw out their seeds, spreading them around, only when they are touched (or shaken). Isn’t there – in this plant, in the way it functions, in its name – anything weird? On the one hand, it is the impatiently awaited touch that contributes to the scattering of seeds, and thus to the reproduction and development of this plant. On the other hand, the plant is still protected by the prohibition which says “do not touch,” “do not stop me.” As if a touch was necessary for it. And, at the same time, as if it defended itself against that touch to the best of its ability.
“Do not touch because it’s not yours,” I heard a mother admonish her child. It was at a market next to a train station, in the crowd. The little hand stretched out in the direction of a plastic bracelet and was about to take it when, suddenly – as if burned – the child drew back its fingers, retreated into itself. As if touching something was tantamount to the unaccepted (or only accepted in exceptional situations) ownership of something, to obtaining, keeping it. Such a mechanism is also revealed in a well-known and somewhat humorous phrase “a touched good belongs to the toucher.” This phrase tells us directly: whoever touches something is obliged to procure it. Take it into their possession. And even become the thing that was touched. Such an assumption may initially be objectionable. The reason for this is the dangerous proximity between the object and the person, the self and the not-self, the subject and the object in the described situations. And this is it! A touch brings the world closer to us. A touch brings us closer to the world. It does not stop us; on the contrary – it pushes us outside of our comfort zone, beyond the known boundaries, towards the strange. Tadeusz Sławek defines tactile “communion” in the following way:
by touching [...] personally (and not only “intimately”) I commune with someone who is not simply “being touched” but also reciprocates my touch. Therefore, the verb “to commune” acquires a special meaning here. It signifies not only being close to someone but also becoming “a stranger” to oneself, depriving oneself of the self-confidence which we acquire by using common patterns of learning and understanding the world. Communion is possible precisely thanks to the Other, the Stranger, to whom I extend my hand, around whom, there forms the space of touch.
The plastic bracelet from the market is not only touched but also it touches. Therefore, a touch allows us to put ourselves in the position of an object. Be with it and even be it. A touch makes it possible to find another body in space, and thus think of oneself outside oneself. And this is the most difficult part of it and this is what raises our objections. De-alienation by touching something means losing confidence in being yourself, being in a certain way, one that is determined and trustworthy.
Such an objection, the feeling of getting burned, and also the loss of self-confidence is a reaction created within the literary culture, which, while paving the way for enlightenment and the age of reason, introduced a significant change in the psychosocial environment. This change consisted of emphasizing the importance that those practices which are based on objectivity, separation, distancing, applying useful divisions, possess in relation to all areas of human life – and hence, also when shopping. It is not surprising, then, that touch, as a sense which is in opposition to distance, rationalization and divisions, is subject to so many prohibitions. This prohibition also applies to the plastic bracelet from the market, which seems to burn with an invisible flame and threatens to scald anyone who dares to approach it unselfishly.
The computer screen displaying this text to me, however, is cool. The coolness of the screen, at which I am looking exhibits from the collections of Małopolska’s Virtual Museum allows me to touch them freely. The virtual museum makes it such that objects become accessible through their unavailability. Let's explain that briefly. First of all, the museum prohibition “do not touch the exhibit” turns into an encouragement to “touch the image of the exhibit”. All the objects exhibited – that is, those displayed to be looked at, gazed at – in Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, although they are diverse in the technical sense – a coin, a mask, a reliquary, a fragment of a sculpture and the sculpture itself – remain two- or three-dimensional images. Secondly, access to exhibits is not limited by time (closing hours) and place (exhibition space). In this sense, I do not have to visit them in the museum, because they are delivered to my flat, like water, like gas, like electricity. Thirdly, it requires lacing together the senses into actions, through which I simultaneously touch and watch (and, in the case of some objects, I also listen). The cursor, with which I move across the cool screen, seems to the perfect embodiment of a combination of senses of proximity (touch) and distance (vision).
Cursor is Latin for “runner,” “courier” or “messenger”. The one who moves along a specific route, often in a hurry, impatiently. A messenger is supposed to provide me with information about the world as soon as possible. He is going away from me to, in a moment’s time, return to me with information. The cursor directs my sight at the object with the help of an arrow resembling a signpost, touches the object with the help of an icon depicting a hand with an outstretched finger. The cursor is an image of not only my hand, which moves the mouse, but of the whole body which moves in the virtual space. It is thanks to the cursor that I do not have to run anywhere. And, at the same time, it is thanks to it that I am travelling at a dizzying speed from the National Museum in Kraków to Museum of Irena and Mieczysław Mazaraki in Chrzanów.
Moving is not only performing movements in a specific space. It is also changing the place in which the self is located, in other words: changing the relationship in which the subject (me) is with the object (an exhibit). Navigating the virtual museum depends solely on the movements of my body, or, in simpler terms: I am the one who decides what I’m visiting, watching, and touching at a given moment. The space and exhibit become closely connected with my own self. What’s more, my self and the exhibit come into direct contact. It is the self which creates the exhibit. The self possesses the exhibit, has it for its own. My self spreads – like the seeds of touch-me-not – within the exhibit. And vice versa: the exhibit spreads within me, takes possession of me, connects with me.
It is generally accepted that the sense of touch corresponds – as in the case of other senses – to a specific organ of the body. The space of touch does not crystallize only around the hand, as Tadeusz Sławek wants. The space of touch does not crystallize at all. The touch applies to the whole body. The touch coats the body like the skin. And it is the skin that is a kind of intermediary through which we touch the world and the world touches us, enabling us to generate a different kind of knowledge. A kind of knowledge which refers to learning through the body and is an important element of all our activities, through which we generate meaning.
While visiting Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, we use touch mediated by devices. This mediation – paradoxically – allows us to be closer to museum exhibits than in the case of a real museum. By touching these objects with the cursor, we are not violating the ban imposed on exhibits by a museum institution, we maintain this prohibition in order to recognize it as important for the relationship itself. We can touch these exhibits as much as we want, we can approach them, we can deform and destroy them. The premises of a virtual museum are open around the clock for our bodily activities. And yet, these exhibits remain intact (untouched), yet the premises are closed (unavailable) to us. Thus, Małopolska’s Virtual Museums require a specific type of reception that combines the close with the distant and, taking it further, – sight with touch, a prohibition with its violation, motionlessness with motion, warmth with cold. The Latin name of touch-me-not balsam – along with its name, singularity and strangeness – seems to embody this peculiar way of receiving the premises of a museum. Impatience, which is tantamount to the movement of a cognizing body and the development of thoughts, as well as the prohibition which reminds us that touching something is risky because, after all, it alienates us, pushes us beyond the fixed mental constructs, deprives us of certainty. While choosing five exhibits from the collections of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, I tried to show how such a reception might work in practice.
Glass necessity money (Irena and Mieczysław Mazaraki Museum in Chrzanów)
|Glass necessity money, Irena and Mieczysław Mazaraki Museum in Chrzanów, public domain|
I have never touched glass money, I have not had it in my fingers, I have not used it. Such a coin, I think to myself, must be light, maybe it is as light as the coins with which I paid at a shop today. In terms of size, it is perhaps just a little bigger than a pupil. I try to imagine the difference felt by the fingers when they touch the side with the raised lettering and when they touch the smooth side, polished with use. I can almost see my fingernail sliding over the letters, scratching, checking them. Finally, in my mind, I reach back to that time, the time of that coin – and when I turn it once more in my mind, something starts to escape my understanding. Is it possible that this shard of glass – in the turbulent time of war – had the same meaning as meat? That they both were exchangeable for one another, no change needed? In what language, however much warped by violence, a bluish shard of glass meant a kilogram of bloody beef meat? Edith Wyschogrod said that touch “is not a sense at all; it is, in fact, a metaphor for the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity... To touch is to comport oneself not in opposition to the given but in proximity with it”. When touching this coin in my mind, I am close to that restless time in which life was reduced to the simplest words and to the words of a simple, brutal exchange. War, metal, glass, meat. All these words pass through my mouth – they enter my interior.
|A The “snow” type “Ko-omote” mask of the “Nō” theatre, the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, © all rights reserved|
Lips painted with red paint, behind the lips, black teeth are hidden. It is to them that I want to pay attention now, like the cursor. I am going to make it clear right away that I will not be interested in the difference between a face and a mask or between Japanese and European culture. But something that is outside of the face, that stays after the face and, as such, is an insult to this face. Simply put, I will be interested in a smear. A false statement aimed at embarrassing, humiliating or ridiculing someone. One might wonder, in what sense are we able to misrepresent someone’s face, humiliate or ridicule it? It was in the Middle Ages that a face was ennobled “by virtue of its location in the head”. Since then, the face has functioned, on the one hand, “in opposition to the physiology of the head,” it might be said that it hides this physiology, on the other – that it “participates in the symbolic meanings of the head associated with power”. In this sense, what is at the top is more valuable than the bottom. And indeed, everything on this theatrical face seems immaculate. How immaculate is the snow that has just covered the earth. Delicate, white, cold. Not marked by the signs of life. Clean, unacquainted with touch. But those teeth, black and rotten, between lips bent in a fixed smile, insulting this face. It is not the empty eyes, not the plastered-down hair, not the lack of ears that misrepresents this face. But the smile on the chubby face. The blackness of the teeth. They misrepresent the whiteness of the face, being a testimony to the needs of somebody who does not exist, is not visible. The blackness of these teeth saves the body’s face. It reveals the hidden body that touches food with its mouth, chews it, tastes it and draws pleasure from it. Let’s look carefully. It is not the face of someone who does not like to eat and who is moderate in their eating. In this sense, it does not possess power, does not control its appetites, it does not reign supreme over the body. This face as a place of power is ridiculed. Reduced to the level of physiological needs. To what is below. And in this way, it is misrepresented as a white wall, which is unacquainted with touch, has never experienced pleasure, nor has it brushed itself up against life.
Reliquary with St. Stanislaus’s hand, (Cardinal Karol Wojtyła Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków)
Reliquary with St. Stanislaus’s hand, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków, public domain
There is a reason why this reliquary took the form of a hand. A hand that points two fingers into the emptiness and – one has such an impression – performs the sign of the cross there. We can imagine that Saint Stanislaus was doing that when he blessed the faithful and wished them divine favour. He did not touch them. But the faithful felt that God was bending over them, taking them into his protection. Let me explain: there is a reason why this reliquary took the form of a hand. Because the truth is that it serves to preserve the thing that “brushed against holiness”, touched it, was close, the closest to it. The exhibit, which is located approximately in the middle of the reliquary, is stored in a niche covered by glass. This niche is called reservaculum. This word, derived from Latin, is related to the verb reservare which means “to preserve”, “to put aside”, “to keep secret”. The English word “reserve” also comes from this very verb. Reserve indicates caution, restraint, coldness, as well as what remains in reserve (as in the case of military initiatives) and may serve as a replacement (as in the case of football). Let us pay attention to a special kind of tactile discrepancy that is revealed here. On one hand, touch blesses: it is a testimony of divine favour, an intimate relationship with God, being close to holiness. On the other hand, touch preserves: it conceals divine secrets, holds what is sacred in reserve – at a distance – replaces a sacred figure. We could interpret this gesture of God’s favour, as a gesture of bending over us, descending to earth, adopting a human mould by Christ. We could consider this replacement gesture as a typically hermeneutical gesture (part for the whole, the whole for a part). We could also reject this theological staffage and think of this reliquary as a kind of device whose task is to remember the touch. A type of typical bodily device that stores memories of all the brushes, abrasions or wounds we have experienced. Ones seemingly so distant and unnecessary, replaced by other, stronger, more intense memories. And yet, still existing somewhere in the body, testifying to the closeness – the highest degree of closeness – in which we may be with the world.
A fragment of Neolithic sculpture, (District Museum in Tarnów)
|A fragment of Neolithic sculpture, District Museum in Tarnów, public domain|
A woman’s right foot, slightly bent inwards, with a narrow heel, arched toes, decorated with a bracelet in the area of the ankle. I am trying to imagine how this foot – whose imitation is the presented fragment of a sculpture – must have moved and trodden on the ground and how it would have touched all of its irregularities and reacted to them. Also, how it would have been in contact with the earth. Today, only children and animals are in contact with the earth. What is under the foot – again, what is below – we usually perceive as dirty, polluting, irrational and uneconomical. And that is why we keep our distance, why we are reserved towards it. The earth serves us primarily as a surface for walking, for walking in shoes, with the reserve of soles. We rarely sit or lie down on it. “If we consider the earth to be an urban pavement, we can say that no one sits on it, except those who have reached the bottom: homeless, drunk or crazy people.” The English word bottom has a wide range of meanings: a nadir, a hole, a far end, a low position, the foot and the base of something. All these meanings reflect the problematic attitude we have – as city dwellers – towards the earth. A nadir, a hole, a low position. These words refer to the way we comprehend social relationships and what is irrational, unacceptable in them, located outside of society. The base, the far end, the foot of something. These words, on the other hand, refer us to such a bodily experience that ennobles the top (the head) in comparison to the bottom (the legs), and thus gives us the advantage of abstract thinking in comparison to somatic thinking. Combining these two dimensions, social relations and bodily experiences, we can say that the bottom – the earth, along with the legs – is invisible to us, similarly to how homeless and crazy people in the city are invisible and constitute a reference point for those who hold higher social positions. There is no doubt that our – European – sense of touch functions best when we barely feel its presence. Therefore, the urban space has been designed in such a way as to have a minimal effect on our skin. Besides, we spend most of our time “indoors”. And our being “outdoors” is just being headed towards another “indoor”. According to Michel Serres, this is what distinguishes us from animals: animals live in their bodies – their membrane, skin or shell is their home, into which they move when they are born and which determines their relationship with the world. A man, along with obtaining an erect posture, lost this essential relationship with the world:
two hands, strangely useless, two feet, stumbling over stones, head in the air, naked, nascent, leaning forward, exposed to the wind, sun, cold, in a natural state, it is threatened. Suddenly, he begins to think ... but what about? About building a house with these new hands. This is the primal thought: to find shelter [...]. That’s why we are looking for a roof over our head; that's why we dwell.
As such, metaphorically speaking, to be in contact with the earth actually means to touch social inequalities. To react to the irregularities of the earth is to recognize one’s abandoned – unaccepted, remote – child-like potential to experience the world with the whole body. To tread on the ground with a bare foot is to recognize the world as one's shelter, just like an animal.
|Sculpture “Schoolgirl with a Rose Wreath” of the “Wawel Heads” series by Xawery Dunikowski, Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection, © all rights reserved|
These eyes protected by eyelids. Władysław Strzemiński, in the pioneering Theory of Vision, states that the eye was once “in the simplest forms of being,” a focal point of cells more sensitized to the touch of light than other cells of the same skin. In this sense, the eye derives from the skin. It appears as a rupture or an injury in an extremely sensitive spot, irritated by light. The sensitivity of the eye can only be compared to a wound that reveals our deep subcutaneous tissue. In other words: the eye comes out of the skin – it is discovered by our externality as something that belongs to the interior, and it is through this discovery that the eye becomes available. When we look at our body, we will realize that the eye is, in fact, the most sensitive spot we have and that we own. Let's try to touch the wrist, the navel, the heel with a finger – none of these parts of the body will hide, they do not have the possibility to hide from the touch, they are uncovered and, as such, they are exposed and prone to the touch. The Latin word for an eyelid is palpebra. If we were to start an etymological game with this word, we would say that palpebra (associated with palpation, i.e. touching, examining by touching) is what gently touches the nakedness of the eye, caressing it, but also protecting it. It is also the only place where our body – by lowering the eyelid – protects itself, both against injuries, as well as images.
Written by Maciej Topolski,
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.
Maciej Topolski – translator, essayist, poet. PhD student at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. Former editor of niedoczytania.pl (2009–2011). He prepared a selection of poems by Adam Wiedemann Domy schadzek [Houses of trysts] (Poznań 2012). He published a volume of poems na koniec idą [at the end they are going] (Łódź 2017), for which he was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Award. He lives in Kraków.
 J 20, 11-18 according to the Millennium Bible. The French philosopher Jean Luc-Nancy devoted a whole book to these three words – see J. Luc-Nancy, Noli me tangere, Paris 2003.
 T. Sławek, Cienie i rzeczy Rozważania o dotyku, [in:] W przestrzeni dotyku, ed. J. Kurek, K. Maliszewski, Chorzów 2009, p. 22.
 It is worth mentioning the concept of "skin ego" by Didier Anzieu, a French psychoanalyst, according to whom the skin is the most vital sensual organ: "some can live without sight, hearing or smell, but it is not possible to survive if most of the skin remains intact. " Which means that only by breaking the skin we are able to survive. See D. Anzieu, The Skin Ego, New Haven 1989.
 See M. Federman, The Sensibility of McLuhan. Tactility, valence theory, and bringing forth the world, unpublished text – I would like to thank Dr. Anna Chromik for providing me with it (Pedagogical University in Krakow).
 Cf. K. Mikurda, Touching images. Please Touch, "Widok. Teorie i praktyki kultury wizualnej" 12/2015, accessible at: http://pismowidok.org/index.php/one/article/view/307/683
 P. Valéry, The conquest of ubiquity, [in:] ibidem, Things left unsaid, translated by J. Guze, Warsaw 1974, p. 141.
 See R. Finnegan, Tactile Communication, [in:] The Book of Touch, ed. by C. Classen, Oxford 2005, p. 22.
 "We usually think that it's the hands that bring us the most touch information because we use them to move objects but everything we do, including sitting, walking, kissing or feeling pain, depends on touch." See T. Field, Touch, Cambridge 2001, p. 75.
 L. Blackman, Body, Oxford 2008, p. 86.
 In: M. Paterson, The Senses of Touch. Haptics, Affects and Technologies, Oxford 2007, p. 147.
 A. Szyjkowska-Piotrowska, po-twarz. Przekraczanie widzialności w sztuce i filozofii, Gdańsk-Warsaw 2015, p. 21.
 See C. Conybeare, Noli me tangere: the theology of touch, [in:] Touch and the Ancient Senses, op. cit., pp. 21-33.
 D. Howes, Skinscapes. Embodiment, Culture, and Environment, [in:] The Book of Touch, ed. by C. Classen, Oxford 2005, p. 29.
 See Ibidem, p. 29
 M. Serres, Variations on the body, translated by R. Burks, Minneapolis 2011, pp. 5-6.
 W. Strzemiński, Theory of Vision, Łódź 2016, p. 51.
 The eyelid as part of the skin is also a bodily device that separates/connects the self and the other, the biological and the social, the organic and the inorganic, the external and the internal. See L. Blackman, op. cit., p. 86.
A man, according to Hans Belting, presents himself to us as a "place of images that besiege his body: he is left at the mercy of the images that he himself created, even when he constantly repeats attempts to control them". Closing the eyes, sheltering them under the eyelids, is, therefore, an expression of concern both on the physical and cultural level.