The achievement of contact, immediation[1]

A system of hideouts that help one overcome emotion[2]

… no, we are kept apart by nothing but the thinnest stretch of water (says Narcissus to his shadow)[3]


When medical officials declare, “the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus”—that is, to “avoid close contact,” “to put distance between yourself and other people”—they express a profound principle: It is through intimacy that we endanger ourselves. [4]  Suffering is inseparable from contact.

There is finally not only a reason for avoiding contact, but an argument against it.

Can we afford to touch?  To breathe within range of one another?  To share what is called “one space”?  And if I cannot be intimate with others, am I allowed to be intimate with myself (remember that even touching my “eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands” is prohibited by the medical guidelines)?  But the point is not which contact is prohibited.  Any contact is too close, and whether distantly or radically proximate, all contact participates in the “person-to-person” transmission of the virus.  “If I could just be split from my own body!” is no longer the strangest longing in a lover, but the requisite of a healthy human.

Consider this: the economy of intimacy written into the word afford.  The subtext reveals a collective investment in a health that mobilizes itself on the snuffing out of intimacy.  How challenging contact is in the face of pathogens.  The word afford forces intimacy to justify itself to our collective life.

Need we acknowledge the costly self-deceit involved in the taking of a standpoint (moral) on the difficulty of intimacy, the deceit, that is, that one is not affected out of the capacity to transform or modify the experience, that one is not already there (even and especially in the “safety of one’s home”), where there is no possibility of escape?  Is it okay to give the difficulty, which we would rather designate a “problem,” over to medicine?  The surgery of intimacy accounts for the fact that its pain is unbearable.  All of a sudden, to share breath through air, through prayer, through the work of life and of living together where the near becomes one’s own, risks bending myself back on me, you over and against me in this habitus we share: that I could get you sick, that you could, in return, get me.  A mysterious regulation of bodily traffic in space announces itself here, as we forgive those who trespass.

What is difficult, we forget, is not the virus, from which many of us can and will recover, but the nearness of another, for which we use the excuse of a virus to distance ourselves.  I refer to the circle of exhalation, being within range of breath of one another—brutally humid—that we are, each of us, mandated to refuse.

If current circumstances have accomplished anything, it is not to disclose us as too proximate to one another.  It is, on the contrary, to disclose what always already was the case: opacity.  Us as opaque to one another.  Once the “avoid close contact” prohibition is lifted and we can go back to how things were, what will we actually go back to?  An everyday more proximate, more embodied, less distanced from each other, or an everyday in which the question is refused all over, as we move on under the guise of “renewed” contact?  Contact will never be renewed.  How could it be?  The prefix re- would imply, utopically, that there was a first place, a sphere of closeness, where we knew about the world of contact and were acquainted with each other.  But have we ever known how to touch and receive touch, how to respond entirely to the profound, because forbidden, invitation of “Let’s meet”?

When we stand over against each other in active mutuality, the intercourse risks rapid transmission, an intensity which the entire bodily and mental experience would verify.  Nothing fits into itself, and what helps the illness along is contact, the experience of uncontrolled intending, the feeling of such a link.  Causing new cases are the existing ones: n is itself a factor in its own change.  To stay with the problem—to refuse, as it were, its forfeiture to medicine—is to risk disclosing not only its illegibility, but our illegibility to one another.  Not for nothing did Jacques Lacan point out a curious homology between pain and the motor reaction.[5]  What is devastating is not transmission, but vibration at the nodal point of contact, the holding without touching at which oscillation swallows us whole in percussive stillness.  Staccato, a trembling that never leaves one still, even as it stills, allowing a poetic notation of pain to be preserved.  Poetic because, there, pain refuses elaboration, not even on how suffering feels in our chests, not even on how it feels to breathe.  And yet, the body resounds.

What is the role of a half-poetic intellect in the pain conversation, if not to halt the understanding of symptoms, the sequencing of the entire genome?  All this belongs to the sphere of modern physiological research, ready to battle and to settle with the virus.  Has this sphere a terminus?

I step in only to suggest that we are starting not from contact but from distance and that we suffer in real terms when we are forced together.

What is contact, then, if it is so hard to achieve?  My thoughts are inconclusive, not least because contact, for its radical empirical certainty, is for me conceptually impossible.  But here I am inviting you to think of what it feels like to be thrown, not once, but each time by the senses beyond what the mind can hold or handle.  What medicine accomplishes is a stilling of our fright, a sedation of the delicate sensitivity of skin as it finds itself susceptible to the hypnosis of infected air.  Medical discourse manages to secure this fissure, this innermost rift between our bodies, the rift it spits out and regulates as “shared space.”

It is time to wonder about shared space.  About the misery threshold where the “to” resides between one person and another.  And about togetherness which also fails genuine intimacy.  It is time to wonder where the ardor, the labor of “contact itself” ambiguously takes place.  An ambiguity, I mean, of which the body is an articulation.

The difficulty is not only that we fail routinely to recognize the emergency of the so-called banal moments of physical contact, refusing them their intimacy, but that we fail to register even at the physical level their intensity.  About whom can we still claim that, when they are touched, they shudder?  Is anyone any longer wounded by the knowledge of how unhaunted others are by physical contact?  We are inept, physically.

The question I am left with is not “Can we afford intimacy now?” but “Could we ever?” And what, if it is a question of afford-ability, the purchase of intimacy is on space?  I offer, preliminarily, the suggestion that to be answerable to the purchase is to have to reconsider the space of contact and oneself within or related to it.  It is to be willing to give up some ability and to find within oneself the possibility of finding complexity in the ruthless, because gentle, advance of touch.  It is, somehow, to live on, at, and for the limit of death where what counts is not what, according to the discourses that regulate our lives, is essential (that I survive, that you survive) but what is the surplus (that I, that you endured the chilling touch of death against all odds).  That moment may be fragile, lethal, but it is the only genuine contact we have.

I offer this as an opportunity, then, to come into our vulnerability in a way that recovers the difficulty not of distance but of contact, of the desperate reaching out across this distance.  It is a beautiful thing that a “mere” embrace could cost a life.  There, where two will die together in one breath, it could also revive one.


Enduring concerns

  1. Recalling a larger riddle: how the capacity to be affected (affect-ability) interacts with immunodeficiency, immunovulnerability, whether the situation of an affected body involves ability or dis-enables movement toward life’s (active) bedrock.
  2. Intimating space, recovering the remainder in a way that there is no non-fraudulent “apart from” pain; there is only a for.
  3. Must we get sick to be finally intimate with one another? Does virus initiate a secret covenant, a contact, with our environs?  What have we to learn from the “sick soul”?  (Cf. William James)
  4. Can the desire to meet be engaged as an ethical force?  What is desire prepared to sacrifice at the most exorbitant “price”?
  5. Is the body an argument? Can it be?


[1] Michaeli, Unpublished fragment

[2] Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, trans. Maurice Friedman (New York: Horizon Press, 1958), 134, my paraphrase.

[3] Ovid, “Narcissus and Echo,” in The Metamorphoses of Ovid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1993), 95.

[4] As advised, verbatim, by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” How to Protect Yourself instructional manual.

[5] Lacan, “Das Ding (II),” in The Seminars of Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Book VII, trans. Dennis Porter (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 59-60.