“In very early childhood,” Freud writes, “a person shows a strong desire to touch.” We know how that story goes—not only because we’ve read our Freud but also, I believe, because we’re modern grown-ups. The desire to touch is met by an external prohibition; that prohibition is accepted. But that prohibition never quite works: “Its only result is to repress the instinct (the desire to touch) and banish it into the unconscious.” 1 It isn’t hard to read Freud’s story about the repression of the desire to touch as an allegory of Enlightenment. By nature we are embodied creatures in a tangible world; modern philosophy prohibits us from behaving accordingly, insisting that we conceive of ourselves as disembodied units of consciousness. We cooperate, since we feel compelled to be modern; and thus we emerge into the discontented maturity of modern life, constrained to view the world from a rational distance when, all the time, what we really want is to touch it.
Today I’d like to suggest that the Enlightenment is not so repressive as we imagine—and indeed that early modernity, like our own later moment, is full of worries about the alienating consequences of their modern thought. The intellectual history of the Enlightenment is, beyond any doubt, characterized by its will to privilege vision, in its most abstract forms, over all other modes of sensory knowing; and to construct modern selves on the model of eyes, gazing out on a world from which they are permanently separated. But I believe it is also true that the philosophical thinking of the Enlightenment, even and especially at moments when it seems most committed to the visual, the rational, and the disembodied, sometimes requires us to close our eyes and feel our way. At crucial moments, the Enlightenment grounds the purity of its philosophical vision on the blind certainty of touch. Even in modernity, St. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians still holds: “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee” (I Cor. 20:12).
1. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. and ed. James Strachey (1913; New York: W.W. Norton, 1950), 38.
Neil Chudgar. "Enlightenment and the Resurrection of the Body" American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/neil_chudgar/4/