Brief Response to Anne Cranny-Francis’s Technology and Touch

by Shaun Terry

On p. 38 of Anne Cranny-Francis’s Technology and Touch: The Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies, she states that political activists “demand” that we “recognize [difference] as a bodily practice that marks our own bodies and determines our bodily relationships with others, including whom we might choose to touch or not.” She supports this kind of thinking by referring to Foucault’s and Heidegger’s hermeneutical conceptions of technology, referring to some of Foucault’s work to be a “powerful intervention.” She refers to the socializing effects that Foucault and Heidegger identify in technology: by engaging with technology, we behave differently from how we might if we were to not use technology.

For Foucault, technology seems to be a system by which we are operated on (through some combination of action directed on us from outside and of self-directed action), subjecting us to particular social norms and values, i.e. Foucault seems quite specific in the attention he gives to the fact that technology helps to shape who we are.

For Heidegger, the concern is related, albeit slightly different. Dasein is the technological frame within which we find ourselves, and by which we see nature as instruments for our lives. Heidegger seems to take issue with the fact that this technological frame is one of many possible realities in which we might find ourselves, despite that it might often be assumed that this is just the way things are or something of that nature. Heidegger seems to suggest that we should look critically on how technology shapes how we think and behave.

However, Cranny-Francis’s position does not seem well-supported by the thoughts of Foucault and Heidegger. In fact, if we are to take Cranny-Francis seriously here, it is hard to fully explain what she might mean, exactly, by “difference.” If it were the case that a difference between people is an external force that “marks our own bodies,” then the hermeneutics of Foucault and of Heidegger would likely have to be for naught. If such differences come only from outside of us, then what is there to be done, other than to resist the symptoms (by which I mean the social effects that this embodiment produces)?

Instead, if we are to take the view of Foucault or Heidegger, then the effects of the embodiment of differences are ones that are likely malleable and subject to change that might be worth advocating for. In particular, Foucault spent a lot of energy focusing on how we participate in our own oppressions, suggesting that we might have a role to play in determining the trajectories of social forces—a position that Cranny-Francis’s statement seems antagonistic to.

The problem in what Cranny-Francis is saying is made somewhat clearer as the line goes on. If, as she suggests, such a difference “determines our bodily relationships with others, including whom we might choose to touch or not,” then we are not the ones deciding with whom we engage and in what ways. Social forces alone determine when, how, and with whom, it is appropriate to touch someone. There is an inherent contradiction here: if there were any hope of empathy or understanding, let alone political action, the determination that Cranny-Francis points to would likely have to have always already been such that there would be no need for this interagential interaction. The alternative to this is that the odd matrix that determines how we all react to one another—and necessarily devoid of any of our input—would be a kind of complicated teleological shifting. This shifting would then have to arbitrarily end in outcomes that are consistent with the desires of those who would appear to be critical of the current state of affairs. Those criticisms, though, would be practically devoid of meaningful content-value because such criticisms are always directed at what would, then, have to be the uncontrollable actions of others.

I suppose that what gets Cranny-Francis in trouble, here, is the absoluteness of what she says. It is not that differences must not help to determine some aspects of social relations, but that is not what she says, and I consider this to be a serious problem, and one that pervades of much of academic writing.

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