IN-TOUCH Q&A with David Parisi

Dr David Parisi is an Associate Professor of Emerging Media in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston, USA. His research investigates the construction of touch through media technologies, with a particular emphasis on the historical, archaeological and genealogical foundations of contemporary haptic human-computer interfaces. His book Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing is forthcoming with the University of Minnesota Press (February 2018). He has recently co-edited, with Mark WD Paterson and Jason Edward Archer, a special issue on Haptic Media Studies (HMS) for New Media and Society. IN-TOUCH recently caught up with him to talk about these publications and his thoughts on digitally mediated touch.

In your co-edited special issue of New Media & Society, you set out to lay the groundwork for what you call Haptic Media Studies (HMS). Can you describe what this is?

What we are trying to accomplish with the issue, and with the ongoing work we’ll be continuing beyond it (including both our under-construction blog at and a planned edited volume of key works), is to initiate a dedicated conversation about the relationship between touch and communication systems, with both terms defined fairly broadly. HMS recognizes and draws attention to 1) touch’s importance to human life and culture very generally, 2) the increasing proliferation of touch technologies into everyday practices of interacting with and through media, and 3) historicity of the term ‘haptic’ as a synonym for touch, which is tied to the positivist programs for quantifying and subdividing touch. Recognizing that there has been somewhat of a paucity of empirical and theoretical work devoted to understanding touch, we wanted to see what sort of research would emerge if we put out a call for it—we suspected that perhaps this work was already being done, just not in a unified or cohesive way.

Could you explain what is new about this field, and also how it connects to what you have previously described as Touch Studies?

For me, what is new and distinct about this field is the way that it attempts to establish a tradition within Media Studies of dedicated theoretical and empirical research on touch. The groundwork for such a tradition predates our project, but it has been scattered in fragments. In reviewing abstracts, we found that there was very little overlap between the bibliographies of the various proposals we received. So the challenge is to try to define what the field looks like, to identify what is exterior and interior to it, and to build a bibliography that allows us to speak with something that sounds like a common tongue. But at the same time, we want this to be an ongoing conversation, rather than a normative canon.

In the piece that Jason Archer and I wrote, we describe the phrase ‘haptic media studies’ as ‘intentionally pugilistic’: what we mean there is that the name is meant to be a provocation, rather than a description. During the editorial process, we asked the authors to respond to haptic media studies as a prompt, to articulate how a focus on the intersection of touch and media changed the way that they approached their research.

And this attempt to carve out a conversation within Media Studies, and a conversation inclusive of but distinct from the growing body of work on touch more generally, is a recognition that those of us within Media Studies will ask different questions about touch than researchers situated in other fields. As you know ‘media studies’ (like touch!) is a bit slippery when you try to pin it down: as a field, it encompasses a range of wildly divergent methods and approaches, with different geographical regions conceptualizing the field’s mission in their own ways.

Especially in the last fifteen years or so, there has been a growing body of scholarly work focused on touch, emerging from a range of disciplines and subfields. Some of this work was situated explicitly in Sensory Studies and Sensory Anthropology—a field that has many tributaries—while other research on the cultural life of touch emerged from Literary Criticism, Film Theory, and Gender Studies. Many of these works will no doubt be familiar to visitors to this blog, but perhaps others will be a bit more obscure. Laura Mark’s Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002), Elizabeth Harvey’s edited volume Sensible Flesh: On Touch in Early Modern Culture (2003), Laura Gowing’s Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (2003), Constance Classen’s edited collection The Book of Touch (2005), Mark Paterson’s Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (2007), and Classen’s monograph The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch (2012) complemented earlier works like Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin (1986). But while they contain valuable insights on touch’s flexibility and multiplicity, other than Marks’s Touch and Paterson’s Senses of Touch, they don’t directly take up questions pertinent to the mediation of touch by communication technologies. Abbie Garrington’s Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing (2013) and Anne Cranny-Francis’s Technology and Touch: The Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies (2013) strike closer to that target, as do some of the chapters in Margaret Linley and Collette Colligan’s collection Media, Technology, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Image, Sound, and Touch (2011; see especially the contributions from Warne, Raykoff, Keep, Colligan, and myself). The literature on touch has developed so substantially from a decade and a half ago that it seemed to make sense to me to carve out a distinct tradition of scholarship specifically devoted to touch and communication media.

The shift from touch studies to haptic media studies also throws emphasis of the research program onto that messy category of the haptic. For me, this is an important move, because the tradition around haptics that I emphasize in my work is one where it is linked intractably to scientific and technical research on touch—the attempt to provide touch with a doctrine akin to the doctrines for seeing and hearing. So this is a way of putting emphasis on the way that touch has been an ‘object-target’ of biopolitics, with touch expressed through a set of psychological instruments and apparatuses, all designed with the intent of abstracting and quantifying touch.

But obviously, this is just one tradition that we can emphasize around haptics. Mark Paterson has mapped the term’s genealogy a bit in his piece for the New Media & Society issue; Laura Marks’s work is very valuable on this front as well. In Archaeologies of Touch (Fig. 1), I try to bridge the gap between the haptic visuality tradition Marks emphasizes and the science and engineering lineage of the term operating in haptic interface design. Others will offer their own formulations, reflective of their broader research agendas—what’s important is that the conversation remains inclusive, reflexive, and ongoing.

Fig. 1 Archaeologies of Touch cover

What are the key questions that you hope will be explored under this new umbrella of HMS?

First off, let me say that I was very excited to learn about the various projects that you are pursuing with In-Touch. This is precisely the sort of theoretically-grounded empirical work that is essential to engage in as new technologies are in the process of being adopted. We have given a laundry list of potential research areas in the call for papers that we originally sent around, and we’ve preserved that document in case anyone is interested in seeing what topics we had initially expected to receive contributions on. I am most curious to see what happens as haptics tech begins to make its way out from the research and design labs and into the commercial marketplace—this is part of my motivation for exploring haptics techs that now appear to have failed, like Novint’s Falcon and the RealTouch cybersex system.

In terms of specific questions: recognizing the fundamental premise of Sensory Anthropology—that the senses are cultural constructs—how does our conceptualization of touch change with the introduction of new technologies? If touch, along with its organ the skin, helps to define the border between the self and the world (as Claudia Benthien suggested), will changing touch techs help to redefine that border? Will practices of physical consumption (shopping and tourism, for example) be transformed if our experiences with the physical world become increasingly mediated by haptics technologies? What are the cultural standards for realism and fidelity where touch is concerned? What changing ideas of intimacy will accompany these techs? What new laws and regulations will need to be adopted in order to account for the body’s new vulnerabilities, if it becomes encased in a force feedback exoskeleton or bodysuit? I am also very interested in unpacking more of the tributaries that have fed into the current technologies, so that we can better understand the politics at work in the history of their development. Finally, there is the persistent question concerning the cultural willingness to touch through digital technologies: will more robust systems of touch communication be adopted and embraced, or will the potential users of these devices push back on the notion of a progressive takeover of the sensorium by digital media?

When you write, in your introduction with Mark Paterson and Jason Archer, that touch has been ‘transformed’ by media and communication systems and that the ‘collective sensorium has been cumulatively altered through the technologies of touch’, what kinds of examples do you have in mind?

For my part in this—which focuses more on the historical intersection of touch, science, and technology than Mark or Jason might—I argue that this transformation of touch predates the era of digital media, and reaches back to the research labs of nineteenth century experimental psychologists. The rupture between what we might reductively understand as the pre-modern and the modern models of touch occurred gradually in these labs, and then accelerated throughout the twentieth century, gaining steam at various points from the injection of new funding streams from both government and industry.

But the emergence of Computer Haptics in the later decades of the twentieth century gave this lab work a practical applicability it had previously lacked. So the alteration of the collective sensorium through technologies of touch, in my view, consists in part of touch’s redefinition as something quantifiable, measurable, and ultimately transmissible—a redefinition that informed the investigations of haptic human-computer interface pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s.

As a consequence of this laboratory and engineering practice, touch has also been reimagined culturally as something that can be transmitted through systems of technical communication (I am thinking here of the depiction of full-bodied VR or telepresence systems like those presented in Lawnmower Man, Surrogates, and Avatar, but also of films like The Matrix, which presents a neural interface with computers capable of delivering touch sensations so realistic that they can maim or even kill their users). On the material level, we also have the very real proliferation of haptics technology into everyday life, with rumble effects for videogames providing the most direct example of haptics working their way into domestic spaces. This is the twenty-year anniversary of Sony releasing its DualShock controller for the first-generation PlayStation, and the dual-motor rumble configuration it featured has been a staple of console gaming ever since. In short, we’ve seen the domestication of some applications of haptics technology, along with the growing normalization of the idea that touch is a sense that can be extended to remote and virtual environments.

Your manifesto with Jason Archer describes touch as having previously resisted or been conceptualised as ‘hostile’ to mediation. What do you mean by this?

I would emphasize the latter part of that statement as more accurate to our claim: it is not that touch resisted or was hostile to mediation, but that the ideation of touch as hostile and resistant to mediation has informed the construction of Media Studies as a field. Media Studies, media history, and media archaeology are each informed by an orientation to technologies that encode, store, transmit, and reconstruct data for the eyes and the ears.

And to piggyback onto your earlier question: this assumption that touch is hostile to mediation informs the construction of Media Studies as a field. It’s 2017. Immersion Corporation has been incorporating tactile signification systems into mobile phones since at least 2005 (with the launch of their VibeTonz system). Frank Geldard and Carl Sherrick founded the Cutaneous Communication Lab at Princeton in 1962. Louis Braille modified existing forms of raised-dot fingertip reading to form what we know understand as Braille almost a century ago. It is somewhat of an empirical fact that touch can serve as a communicative sense, with its own distinct systems for relaying information. But Media Studies, outside of McLuhan’s not-fully-baked ideas on televisual tactility, has no firm theory or account of mediated touch, frequently collapsing touch into more general considerations of embodiment.

We are very fortunate that Steve Jones, the editor-in-chief of New Media & Society, supported the project, and saw it immediately as a fit for the journal. But Steve is sort of an arch-conservative in the field—with his own research, the journal, the Association of Internet Researchers, and his book series, he has an established history of embracing ideas that are a tick ahead of where the rest of the field’s at. In the major disciplinary conferences—the annual meetings of the National Communication Association and the International Communication Association, for example—touch is still virtually un-represented. We are hopeful that our work in this area will expand the field a bit.

What do you think one can learn from tracing the history of touch technologies?

Hopefully, quite a lot! First off, tracing this history helps to destabilize claims about the novelty of present-day touch tech, situating the current developments in a longer history of prognostications about the impending rapid uptake of haptic human-computer interfaces. Claims of technological inevitability are also claims of power, implying that people are powerless to resist and push back against the adoption of new technologies. Considering this longer history calls attention to the ways that touch has already been expressed through technology, suggesting that the future will not necessarily entail a progressive colonization of the body by technoscience. For example, one hundred years ago, mass-produced electrical machines were used as a means of recharging and healing the body, while also providing a form of popular entertainment. The sensation of touching electricity symbolized and embodied electricity’s growing power to transform communication and industry. But one hundred years later, touching electricity is a fairly taboo practice, with culturally circulated fears cautioning us against these sorts of direct contacts with electricity.

Second, it also helps us to rethink practices of interface design and communications technology engineering, casting them as sites where hegemonic models of the senses are contested and potentially undermined.

One of the things that I found striking in reviewing conference proceedings and articles in technical journals is the way that these practitioners identified something akin to ocularcentrism operating in dominant technical media, and articulated the design of touch communication systems as a means to undermine the power of the visual.
More generally, considering this long history encourages us to think more flexibly about the conventional stories that we’ve told around technology and the senses—it prompts us to entertain the possibility that there are counter histories to these narratives. In focusing on the development of a hegemonic, disciplinary model of haptics and tracing its subsequent embedding in the new field of Computer Haptics, the approach I take in Archaeologies of Touch has its limits and biases. But I am hoping that it will prompt further investigation in the historical underpinnings of contemporary touch technologies.

Which current areas of development excite you the most, in terms of the anticipated future of touch technologies, and why?

I’m far from a technoutopian, but as someone who has been following this field for a decade and a half, this is such an exciting question to speak to right now. The re-emergence of VR as a commercial, mass-marketed technology has prompted a wave of new investment into the field of haptics. This in turn has sparked a renewed interest in the body as a space for information reception.

Fig. 2 HaptX (formerly AxonVR) envisions a full-body haptic system and exoskeleton that can support a user. HaptX uses microfluidic technology to achieve realistic touch. Image taken from:

Throughout Archaeologies of Touch, I stress that haptics research, since its inception, has resisted localizing touch to the hands, investigating the capacity of different skin regions to take in data from the external world. But after VR went bust in the late 1990s, a good deal of haptic human-computer interface research focused on sending data through the hands or, in a more targeted way, through the fingers. Now, we’re seeing a host of systems that target the body more broadly again. The Teslasuit, Sony’s Synesthesia Suit, and the exoskeleton in development from AxonVR each attempt to project a more robust version of the haptic system into computer-generated worlds. And in these systems, electrical stimulation is starting to make a comeback as well, restarting an old debate about its merits in comparison to more common mechanical stimuli (vibration motors, for example).

Fig. 3 Patent image of AxonVR’s full-body haptic suit. Image taken from:

In the last five years or so, we’ve also seen rapid advances in the area of prosthetics, with new feedback systems enabling the transmission of touch sensations through prosthetic hands. This is obviously a huge development, as it will help people to more dexterously manipulate objects with their artificial limbs.

Using similar feedback mechanisms in exoskeletons for paraplegics and quadriplegics could enable them to regain some freedom of movement. In the US, we’ve been really slow to make our infrastructure more accessible to citizens with mobility impairments—and this would be far from a perfect fix, especially given how expensive these devices are, but it’s a significant development nevertheless.

Fig. 4 Concept art for the TeslaSuit full-body haptic feedback suit, which uses 46 points of stimulation to provide detailed ‘haptic animations’ for the wearer. Image taken from:

And finally: sex robots! As we saw with the RealTouch, the commercial viability of (and resulting moral panic around) sex robots will hinge on incorporating haptics into these machines.

With so many potential commercial applications for touch tech, the next few years will bring a lot of opportunities for empirical research—so what you’re doing with the In-Touch project is especially important and promising right now.




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