Haptic Experience in the Writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Michel Serres

by Crispin Lee (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 320 Pages
Series: Modern French Identities, Volume 116


Our sensory relationships with the social and biological world have altered appreciably as a result of recent developments in internet and other mobile communication technologies. We now look at a screen, we touch either the screen or a keyboard in response to what we see and, somehow, an element of our sensory presence is transmitted elsewhere. It is often claimed that this change in the way we perceive the world and each other is without precedent, and is solely the result of twenty-first-century life and technologies. This book argues otherwise. The author analyses the evolving portrayals of ‘haptic’ sensations – that is, sensations that are at once tactile and visual – in the theories and prose of the writer-philosophers Georges Bataille (1897–1962), Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003) and Michel Serres (1930–). In exploring haptic perception in the works of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres, the author examines haptic theories postulated by Aloïs Riegl, Laura U. Marks, Mark Paterson and Jean-Luc Nancy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Defining Haptic Perception: Aloïs Riegl
  • Laura U. Marks
  • Mark Paterson
  • Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Conclusion
  • Georges Bataille
  • Maurice Blanchot
  • Michel Serres
  • Bataille, Blanchot and Serres: Haptic Experience
  • Chapter 1 Bataille and the Haptic: Fleshy Transcendence
  • Perspectives
  • L’Œil pinéal
  • Hétérologie
  • L’Informe
  • Reconciling Bataille and the Haptic
  • Histoire de l’œil
  • Marcelle and the Haptic Experience
  • A Social Encounter with the Haptic
  • A Sensory Prison
  • A Lingering Glance?
  • Coincidences of Sight and Touch
  • Madame Edwarda: Attraction, Reflection and the Haptic
  • Consummation, Limits and Sense
  • Tears, Trembling and Liquefied Limits
  • Le Bleu du ciel
  • Hands (and Tears) in the Basement
  • Hands Shaking, Bodies Moving, Minds Frozen
  • Haptic Rhythm and Optical Repulsion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 Blanchot, Haptic Sensation and a Visible Absence
  • Blanchot, Haptic Theories and Some Initial Difficulties
  • L’Image or Getting to Grips with the Intangible
  • A Fascinating (Haptic?) Time
  • A Third Dimension
  • Sight, Writing and a Recurrent Haptic Limit
  • Thomas l’obscur (première version)
  • A Swimming Sensation
  • Caving in to Haptic Perception
  • The Feminine Touch
  • Anne
  • Irène and the Cinema
  • Another Tide
  • La Folie du jour: Haptic Feelings of Madness
  • In Shadow: Le rapport du troisième genre
  • Récit vs. Hapticity?
  • L’Instant de ma mort: Erasing the Haptic’s Foothold
  • From Haptic Perception to Sensory Neutralisation
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3: Serres: Haptic Perception, Touching Knowledge
  • Information, Matters
  • The Material Traces of Time
  • A Virtually Haptic Turn
  • The Serresian Objet: Defining the Partial, the Quasi and the Virtual
  • The Interdisciplinary, the Virtual and the Haptic
  • Skin to Begin: Les Cinq Sens
  • Painted Ladies: Skin as a Virtually Haptic Surface
  • Speech, Haptic Perception and Remembering a Sting in the Tale
  • Le Tiers-Instruit: That Swimming Feeling (Again)
  • Fighting on Film and a Trip to the Theatre: La Guerre mondiale
  • Tackling Rugby or the Benefits of Watching a Play
  • On the Ball
  • An Ever More Virtual Skin
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Mathematics, Chaos, Hapticity, Order
  • A Journey into Virtually Inscribed Skin and Actual Sensation
  • Bataille and Blanchot: Virtual Haptic Likenesses?
  • Hapticity and Gender, Life and Death
  • Hapticity as Exclusion or Inclusion
  • Seeing and Feeling the Difference? Theory, Prose and the Virtual
  • Some Final Words and No End of Haptic Feeling
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Texts
  • Secondary Texts
  • Index
  • Series-Index

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In spite of their relative brevity, the writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Michel Serres are rarely a ‘quick read’; they enquire into areas of philosophy and perception which defy concision and sometimes, challenge the idea that language is even capable of articulating intellectual ideas and/or physical sensations. The writers’ negotiations of these difficulties require time and consideration on their part and on our own. It is for this reason that I have included extended quotations from the works of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres where possible. (Particular thanks to Éditions Gallimard for granting me permission to reproduce excerpts from Blanchot’s Thomas l’obscur (première version).) When added to the fact that haptic perception is a concept that inspires significant debate in its own right, I have been forced to be rather briefer in some of the analyses contained in this book than I would have liked. My examination of the sociopolitical and spiritual dimensions of the works of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres has had to be particularly selective in order to ensure that my commentary does not spill over into a second volume.

On the subject of selectivity, anyone who reads my analyses of Bataille’s Histoire de l’œil or Le Bleu du ciel and experiences a sense of déjà vu is quite right to: a handful of phrases from these subsections appeared in my first published article, ‘Georges Bataille or the Theory and Fiction of Apocalyptic Visions’, which was included in Visions of Apocalypse: Representations of the End in French Literature and Culture, ed. by Leona Archer and Alex Stuart (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013), pp. 165–75.

These are not the only acknowledgements I have to make. I begin by highlighting the AHRC’s financial support of my doctoral studies in French and the taught MA that preceded it. I thank Dr Tom Baldwin, Prof. Lorenzo Chiesa and Prof. Peter Read of the University of Kent, Canterbury, for their supervision of the doctoral thesis from which this book is derived. Thanks also to Prof. Patrick ffrench of King’s College London, and ← vii | viii → Dr Lucy O’Meara of the University of Kent, Canterbury, who were the highly attentive examiners of my thesis. I proffer a further nod of recognition to Hannah Godfrey, Dr Peter Collier of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and the Oxford branch of Peter Lang for their oversight of this, my first monograph.

I reserve a final vote of thanks for my friends, my family, Miss K. and most of all, Miss N.; without their encouragement and support, I would never have completed this project.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

C. T. L., London, July 2014

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In this book, I will be analysing how the critical and literary works of Georges Bataille (1897–1962), Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003) and Michel Serres (1930–) portray instances of haptic perception. As I shall explain shortly, the term ‘haptic perception’ (or ‘perception haptique’ in French) may describe a number of different sensory processes. Even the definition of what haptic perception in fact is tends to vary from one theory of perception to the next. Later in this introduction, I shall be undertaking a detailed examination of this problem and explaining the contrasting definitions of haptic perception that I intend to use in my analyses of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres’s works.

Until then, let us content ourselves with two dictionary definitions relating to the haptic. We begin with the prefix ‘hapt(o)-’, which is described in the Larousse Lexis of 1989 as an ‘élément, du grec haptein, saisir’.1 The same dictionary gives us the following definition of the term ‘haptique’: ‘[aptik] adj. (v. 1950). Relatif au toucher, à sa mesure en psychophysique’.2

I have chosen to consider the manifestation of haptic perception in Bataille, Blanchot and Serres’s works partly because, at the time of writing, there are no other in-depth studies of how these writers’ approaches to haptic perception interconnect. My other motivation for writing this book is more pragmatic. We live in an age in which the internet exerts a ← 1 | 2 → major influence upon our lives. In fact, technology has advanced so considerably that visual, audio and even tactile sensory data may now be encoded and uploaded to – or downloaded from – a computer hard drive several thousand miles away. The process of perception, which was once uniquely corporeal, has begun to transcend the human body.

As this introduction will show, theoretical understandings of haptic perception have kept pace with these major technological and ontological evolutions. As a result, the descriptions of haptic perception that I shall analyse shortly tend towards a less and less corporeally centred definition of what this perception actually is. Synergy between sight and touch remains important in each case. Simultaneously, however, the variety of philosophical and empirical circumstances under which such synergy takes place also becomes increasingly relevant. The question of whether the human body may be transcended or otherwise superseded through the use of modern technologies has also become appreciably more significant.

The particular importance of philosophical and empirical context to matters of visual and tactile perception is a theme to which Bataille, Blanchot and Serres return on a number of occasions. All three write about this issue in philosophical treatises and in literary prose. My analysis will illustrate how the writings of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres plot literary and philosophical arcs, evolutions in the philosophical and literary treatments of sight and touch in twentieth- and twenty-first-century France. One way in which I suggest these philosophical and literary arcs are entwined is that they foreshadow evolutions in haptic theory over the last fifteen years (even if Serres alone makes any direct reference to haptic perception).

It is clear that there are many possible ways in which to structure my readings of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres and their portrayals of haptic perception. Since relatively little secondary material concerning any of these authors and haptic perception is available, the theoretical perspectives on haptic perception that I present below will determine the thematic preoccupations of my readings of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres. I have chosen to consider the various forms of haptic perception posited by Riegl, Marks, Paterson and Nancy because they offer us the most concise means ← 2 | 3 → of appreciating the manifold possibilities of haptic perception portrayed in the works of Bataille, Blanchot and Serres.3

Defining Haptic Perception: Aloïs Riegl

The first use of adjective ‘haptic’ (or haptisch) in an art historical context is often attributed to Aloïs Riegl, a Viennese academic and one-time museum curator who died in 1905.4 Though Riegl popularised the term haptisch, which is derived from the Greek verb haptein (‘to fasten’),5 his application of the term is somewhat erratic, alternating between use as an adjective and a noun. Moreover, the term only appears in any form in two relatively late works, Das holländische Gruppenporträt (The Group Portraiture ← 3 | 4 → of Holland; 1902) and ‘Der moderne Denkmalskultus: sein Wesen und seine Entstehung’ (‘The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin’; 1903).6 Elsewhere, Riegl uses the adjectives taktisch, tastbar or greifbar in place of haptisch, apparently doing so on an interchangeable basis. As may be guessed from this list of substitutive adjectives, Riegl often employs the term haptisch to refer to painted, sculpted or built surfaces which exhibit overtly tactile, visible detail. Such detail creates a proximal impression of space within the mind of its observer. Riegl’s clearest definition of the haptic object is presented in his lengthy analysis of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painters of group portraits in the Netherlands, Das holländische Gruppenporträt. (For ease of reading, I include English translations of Riegl’s words.)

There are […] two modes of planar phenomena: the haptic mode, in which objects seen at close range stand tangibly side by side in height and width, and the optic mode, in which objects seen from a distance are presented to the eye even though they are tangibly behind each other at different depths.7

As can be seen in the quotation above, Riegl’s presentation of the haptic stems from what he considers to be an opposition between two forms of perception which he terms haptic (or objectivist) and optic (which Riegl ← 4 | 5 → considers to be synonymous with the subjectivism). The haptic object is visually perceptible in the height and broadness of a given visual plane. The haptic (art) object is discernible first and foremost through the visibility of the tactile qualities of its constitutive materials. Moreover, these materials are arranged so as to be representative of something more than their mere presence. Haptic objects exist in an extrapolative form of three-dimensionality which is inspired by the visible possibility of proximal tactile contact between a beholder and the observable tactile details of part of the surface being observed (‘in which objects seen at close range stand tangibly side by side in height and width’).

As his emphasis upon appearance above suggests, Riegl’s account of haptic artistry is focussed most heavily upon the mental impression that the Dutch painters’ canvases leave upon their beholder. By overpowering the viewer’s rational, visual understanding of painted two-dimensional space through its physical proximity to the beholder’s eye and its representations of space and form, the sight of a section of the painted surface impresses itself directly upon the viewer’s mind. This rationally unmediated impression leads the viewer to experience a sensation of tactility. Because this impression occurs without conscious reordering or processing of visual data, Riegl refers to the haptic as also being objectivist.8 In this way, the ← 5 | 6 → sensation of tactile immediacy incited by visual cues that he postulates is a product of unthinking feeling. In spite of its unreasoned nature, the same sensation can also be schematised through rational analysis of the visual stimuli that incite it.

Above all, haptic space as Riegl postulates it is inextricably linked to our sense of corporeal presence. (Elsewhere, he qualifies this intimate association of concepts as the result of an ‘inevitable flavour of the haptic and concrete’.)9 Riegl continues:

We call art whose principle intent is to reproduce the objective characteristics of things, objectivist; art whose fundamental intent is to reproduce the momentary appearance of things on the retina of a single observing subject is called subjectivist.10

From this explanation, it is clear that Riegl believes the characteristics of a piece of objectivist art will be perceptible in the same way by any observer of any epoch because it is capable of reproducing ‘the objective characteristics of things’. Contrarily, subjectivist works of art seek to convey faithfully a uniquely individual vision of a particular moment. The emphasis of such artistry is its momentary appearance, the visual impact that it exerts upon the eyes of an individual observer; the universal comprehensibility of the vision conveyed is of markedly less importance.11 ← 6 | 7 →

Having established these principles, let us now consider Riegl’s explanation of how the concepts of objectivist and subjectivist art interact with those of the tactile and the optical:

The characteristics of things reveal themselves through stimuli which exert themselves upon the senses of the perceiving subject. There are two forms of these stimuli: 1. Purely optical, colourful characteristics which stimulate the eyes exclusively; 2. So-called tactile, which are the physical characteristics of things, spatial prolongation and demarcation which stimulate the subjective observer’s tactile sense but which are also conveyed visually at distance.12

As we see from this extract, Riegl believes that all things exude certain stimuli which are perceptible by a self-aware subject. These stimuli fall into two categories. The first such category is purely optical in nature because it stimulates the eyes specifically. The trigger for this stimulus is the colouring of the ‘thing’ being observed. The second, so-called tactile category of stimuli is based around the visible expanse of materials used in the construction of the ‘thing’ and how that expanse is framed in space. This encompassing of space not only renders that space finite, but localises it appreciably. This visible and proximal confinement of space solicits the observer’s tactile sense whilst also creating a specifically visual impression of spatial distance. (Riegl does not use the term ‘haptic’ (haptisch) in ‘Über antike und moderne Kunstfreunde’ (‘On the Ancient and Modern Art Connoisseur’). As I have shown already, however, the qualities that← 7 | 8 → Riegl associates with the tactile sense and tactility in this short essay from 1904 are the same as those which he terms ‘haptic’ in Das holländische Gruppenporträt.) Riegl summarises that, ‘we shall call optical any art which intends to show things as pure, colourful appearances; that other art, which seeks first and foremost to make the physicality of things clear to see, we shall call, tactile’.13 In spite of his careful explanation of the roles that vision and tactility play in his understanding of art history, Riegl is of the opinion that it is optical, subjectivist artistry which dominates modern art:

One can now understand easily what optic subjectivism is to be taken to mean: an art which intends to portray things as momentary, colourful stimuli of a lone, observing subject. […] We encounter much of the predominantly optical subjectivism of the era of the Roman Empire in modern art.14

What is unexpected about Riegl’s remarks is that while he believes tactilely objectivist and optically subjectivist artistry to be temporally specific, he portrays the influence of optical subjectivity detectible in early twentieth-century artistry as being a modified echo of late Roman artistic sensibilities.15 In spite of their temporal continuity, the concepts of tactile objectivity and optic subjectivity are therefore also avatars of anachronism, of temporal disorder and creative repetition. Still, Riegl believes the Europe of the early twentieth century to have embraced exclusively optical artistry: ‘The dominant tendency nowadays is to let the work of art vanish as a physical object and become absorbed into the inner subjective experience ← 8 | 9 → of the viewer’.16 This means that Riegl considers the Western European art of his era to have divorced itself from representation. When viewed, the arrangements of material which define the optical artwork’s physical presence appear to be no more than surface colours which are visibly distinct from the surrounding space in which they are seen. Simultaneously, however, the surface colours of the optical artwork appear as if they are interconnected with the wider space in which they are observed:

When modern aesthetics says that objects are colours, what they really mean is that objects are plain surfaces: however, not the haptic, polychrome kind associated with the old masters, but the optical, colouristic kind that allows the object to be depicted as a whole together with its surroundings without completely suppressing its individuality.17

In ‘Der moderne Denkmalskultus’, by contrast, Riegl applies the terms ‘optic’ and ‘haptic’ to built structures. The main thrust of Riegl’s argument in this text is that conservation should not obscure or attempt to undo natural wear upon a built structure’s surfaces. One aspect of this position is that the more visible that such signs of ageing are, the more a monument becomes a remnant of a bygone age and the more valuable it becomes as a fading relic of – rather than as a faithful preservation of – the moment in history that it seeks to commemorate: ‘The traces of this process testify to the fact that a monument was not created recently […], and the age-value of a monument therefore rests on the obvious perception of these traces’.18 ← 9 | 10 → This relatively simple explanation of natural decomposition acquires an intriguing – and specifically haptic – complication when Riegl claims that our optic sensory faculties afford us a better appreciation of the signs of ageing on a built surface: ‘Age-value manifests itself less violently, though more tellingly, in the corrosion of surfaces, in their patina, in the wear and tear of buildings and so forth. The slow and inevitable disintegration of nature is manifest in these ways’.19 (Though it emphasises the ‘disintegration’ of built surfaces, this translation makes no reference to the ‘mehr optisch als haptisch’ (‘more optic than haptic’) way in which we perceive such disintegration, a point upon which Riegl’s original text remarks specifically.)20 Optical perception is favoured in this instance because, as we have seen already, Riegl associates haptic perception and thinking with antique art, not modern, post-Enlightenment artistry. As his presentations of haptically orientated painting and building in Das holländische Gruppenporträt suggest, the sensations that haptically orientated art creates within its beholders are not compatible with physically or mentally detached observation of a given surface, even if such sensations can be explained rationally.

These details aside, it should not escape our attention that Das holländische Gruppenporträt and ‘Der moderne Denkmalskultus’ characterise Riegl’s understanding of haptic perception as being inspired by stationary objects of artistic craftsmanship.21 Through its ability to impress itself upon the observer’s vision, the haptic sensation inspired by an artwork imbued ← 10 | 11 → with haptic characteristics can be used to date that artwork. Though he believed the enduring influence of haptic perception upon artists of his era to have become increasingly blurry, Riegl was certain that the evolution of art from haptic to optical perspective must also entail an element of palpable social change, a ‘comprehensive development into a growing emancipation of mental functions from the bodily’.22 Art’s emancipation of psychological life from the constraints of corporeality ‘instructs the course of art history […], then the course of religious history and ultimately, the course of ethical developments in political and social life in general, as well’.23


VIII, 320
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
internet sensory presence mobile communication life
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. VIII, 320 pp.

Biographical notes

Crispin Lee (Author)

Crispin T. Lee holds a PhD in French from the University of Kent. His doctoral research, on which this book is based, included eight months at the École normale supérieure in Paris. His doctoral and MA studies were funded by AHRC scholarships.


Title: Haptic Experience in the Writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Michel Serres
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328 pages