Titarenko, Untitled (Boy)“I’ll keep in touch,” they say, you say. But as with all metaphors, it’s a porous and ineffable boundary that separates what’s in and what’s out of touch. Perhaps it creeps up on you after a while, perhaps you catch note of it while it’s happening, seemingly unstoppable like a glacier slowly falling towards the sea: you’ve lost touch, you’re losing touch, you may even be losing your touch.

I’ll phone tomorrow; I’ll send that email tonight; you promise yourself. But the first deferral makes the second easier, and so progressively until you no longer remember what you might have said, what you might have written.

In part it may be because now there are so many more ways to keep in touch: letter, phone, email, instant message.

You can look up addresses and phone numbers with lightning speed: the other day I was naively shocked by how easy it was to locate people at, and even more by how much more information (and for only $39.95) US Search could offer me.

Plugging in my own name, I saw US Search had details of 22 former addresses. Had I really moved so much? I wondered. And so the feeling with which that left me was more a sense of being irrevocably out of touch, now with my own life, with all that I had managed to forget even about myself.

It’s like the strange shock of looking at old photos, seeing yourself among a smiling group of people, and realizing you have no idea who these others are: people who obviously meant so much, so intensely, at one point, but who have now drifted irredeemably out of your memory.

There’s something brutal, then, about technology’s power of memorialization and recall, when set alongside our own dwindling capabilities to keep in touch with the many now nameless individuals who at one point touched you, whom you at one point touched.

And with all the power we now have to remedy these deficits, increasingly we allow it to fall into disuse. When was the last time I sent or received a letter? Or did much with email beyond barely trying to keep abreast of my inbox?

Perhaps we teachers are (if we allow ourselves to be) especially susceptible to this sudden shock of realizing how much we have lost touch. The other day I stumbled across a sheaf of essays that students had forgotten to pick up a couple of semesters ago. Looking over the names of my former students, while some images suddenly flashed back into view, I realized how many names I could no longer put a face to, how many of their personalities and characteristics had been obliterated in my attempt to learn the names of ever new student cohorts each semester.

But somewhere here is simply the same old, same old vertigo of modernity: the experience of rapid change, even during one lifetime, the sense that expanded social circles and social mobility casts its shadow in transience and oblivion.

And no wonder paranoia becomes our age’s defining neurosis, generating on the one hand the conpiratorial theses that suggest everything is connected, and on the other hand the worry that if I have lost touch it’s somehow their fault. But at least if they’re all after me, then they’re thinking about me after all.

Titarenko, Begging Womanimages by Alexey Titarenko

Crossposted at Act 13. Touch.


Bridges of Madison County posterOn the face of it, The Bridges of Madison County is a study in psychology: an Iowa housewife, Francesca, dies; among her effects her children discover the key to a closely-held secret, a brief but passionate love affair several decades previously.

Her secret is presented as the key to understanding this woman. Her diaries open up to her children another side to their mother, revealing her to be more than the mere inhabitant of a social role. Yet, within the logic of the secret itself (told in flashback) there is the question as to why she didn’t take the chance to escape, to wander the world with the exotic National Geographic photographer who has entered her life and showed how everything might have been otherwise.

So, first: why? And then: why not?

The notion that the film is psychological is emphasized by its format: almost a chamber piece with the bulk of the screen time taken up by the two characters of Francesca (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep) and the photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood). We are brought to these two subjectivities, one perhaps still only just burgeoning, at a moment of intensity.

But precisely this extreme focus, on these two people over just four days, already starts to give the lie to any psychological realism. We never get any sense, for instance, as to why the episode should have held such importance for Robert, whose character remains a cipher: he stands, rather abstractly, for exoticism and transience; otherwise, there is almost nothing to him. Nor, in the end, do we really see any deeper into Francesca’s motivations: yes, we can understand that she might feel isolated and adrift in rural Iowa, but why really is she there in the first place? What holds her to her husband?

Streep and EastwoodStreep give Francesca an interesting gesture, repeated so often it becomes a tic, a habit: she is endlessly putting her hand to her face, usually to half turn away. It is as though hiding behind her raised hand are inner depths that constantly elude us–and also Francesca herself, so deeply has she repressed her passions. But why insist on some depth beneath the gesture? Why not see the gesture itself as part of an affective mechanism, fully imbued with Francesca’s desire.

The gesture of hand to face is complicated by a further gesture that Francesca (almost) makes near the film’s end: rather than hand to face, now hand to (car door handle) as, in a crucial moment, she faces the choice of leaving her husband, his car, his life, and joining Robert who is in the truck up front, stopped at traffic lights in the rain. Hand to handle. Hand to handle. It starts to turn. But then the lights change and, after a pause, Robert heads off; Francesca stays, now putting hand to face again.

Hand – face – hand – handle: this minimal mechanism constitutes the film.

We might add, though, various lines of movement and change, along and beside which the mechanism operates: above all, the road leading to Francesca’s isolated farmhouse, a road full of ups and downs, twists and turns, such that (as Robert finds when he first turns up on it), it’s easy to get lost on it. The road brings Robert to her; it also takes her husband and children away, though then brings them back, while Francesca gazes again up the track hoping that Robert will reappear.

The road also leads (eventually) to a bridge, or rather a series of bridges, the eponymous covered bridges of Madison Country. Points of transition where the mechanism of transition (the crossing itself) is hidden: a black box in which what’s to be found at the other side, or even whether one emerges out the other side at all, remains something of a surprise; these are sites of situations, of (possible) events. Will she cross? Won’t she cross?

And yet the bridges hide nothing: there’s no secret heart, (again) no psychological depth. Just a minimal series of gestures, a diagram with serried bifurcations, which may or may not prompt one body to take flight with another.


Via 3 Quarks Daily, an MSNBC report of an experiment on brain activity in response to politically oriented stimuli:

“We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” [. . .]

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained. [. . .]

“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Westen said. [. . .]

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.

Now, the interpretation put on these results, by MSNBC if not by the Emory team itself, concerns the irrationality of partisan “bias.” “Nonpartisanship” is such a strange fetish in US media and political culture.

But of course political habits are about affective fixes; and political responses are affectively conditioned before they are reasoned–or even ideological–judgements. No great surprise or scandal there.

Update: further discussion at Alas.