Grasp All, Lose All: Loss of Grasp and Non-Functional Digital Interfaces in Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

“And one should understand tact, not in the common sense of the tactile, but in the sense of knowing how to touch without touching, without touching too much, where touching is already too much.” Jacques Derrida

A “hasty conclusion”, perhaps, as stated by Derrida, yet, one that was (and still is) able to cause an intense discussion among philosophers. In his questioning of touch, Derrida draws on Jean Luc Nancy’s philosophy of touch, particularly on the latter’s paradox of intangible tangibility, as a way to explore a slightly different meaning of the verb haptein (to be able to touch, to grab, to attach, to fasten), but also meaning “to hold back, to stop” (Nancy [2003]: 2008, 15).

By contrast, the intensification of research media devices that summon tactile/haptic functions, along with efforts to increase tangibility in the Human-Machine Interface (Gallace & Spence: 2014, 162), are often attached to literalizations and instrumentalizations of touch and gesture that seem to obliviate a long tradition in philosophy dedicated to these aporias. First, by representing touch and gesture as a superficial contact; second, by making promises of presence, transparency and intimacy that often resemble a fetishised and ancestral need of direct access to knowledge by means of tactility.

Calling attention to the non-superficiality of touch and gesture, there is evidence of a branch of digital literary works particularly concerned with multisensory perception in digital multimodal environments. Making use of a contercultural and metamedial poetics largely influenced by early avantgarde artistic proposals, these works enable us to question the ways we read and write in digital interfaces by means of another paradox: an intended loss of grasp in order to raise awareness.

Concerning digital interfaces’ transparency and ubiquity, Lori Emerson states that “[a]ll of these interfaces share a common goal underlying their designs: to efface the interface altogether and so also efface our ability to read, let alone write, the interface, definitely turning us into consumers rather than producers of content.” (Emerson: 2014, 1) Still, for Emerson there is some light at the end of the tunnel, namely by means of this “growing body of digital literature” that courts “difficulty, defamiliarization, and glitch as antidotes (…) against what ubicomp has become” (id.: 2), the “nearly pervasive multi-touch interface” included. (id.: 4) Such “antidotes” can be resumed to the aforementioned loss of grasp (for instance, glitch as a visual loss of grasp), a necessary

condition in order to raise awareness. However, taking into account specific materialities of digital devices, in spite of a continuity of disruptive operations of estrangement, we may ask what are the differences between previous understandings of “loss of grasp” and the ones enabled by digitality.

Loss of Grasp is also the title of a digital literary work of art, created by Serge Bouchardon and Vincent Volckaert (2010). Briefly described by its authors as “an online digital creation about the notions of grasp and control”, Loss of Grasp is an interactive narrative featuring a character who paradoxically loses grasp as he tries to have a grip on his life. Serving as a metaphor for the ways we tend to see functionality and transparency (for instance in digital multimodal environments), the subject is led towards a gradual state of awareness that only becomes possible by a total loss of grasp.

I argue that close-readings of such works of digital literature may help us to better understand what are the consequences of touch and gesture in contact with digital interfaces.

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Diogo Marques