Unfolding the Tactile Sense: Towards a Convergence of Meaning and Affect in Artefact Design

The ‘sense’ of touch is fraught with complexities: it cannot be reduced to a clear-cut sense modality, to either sensation or perception. Fuelled by the sensory turn and the recognition of the embodied subject, twentieth-century thinkers and philosophers have tackled the multi-determined phenomenon that is touch and developed a discourse in which the boundaries between the literal, immediate and the metaphorical, untouchable dimensions of touch bleed into each other. Touch appears more as a sense of being in the world, a ‘figure’ of feeling, relating and knowing. Edith Wyschogrod, in particular, called for a recovery of the manifold meanings of tactility and advocated a “break with the conventional schematisation of tactility as a species of the genus sensation” (1980). Thus, the word ‘tactility’ (from Latin tactilis, ‘that may be touched’, from tangere ‘to touch’) refers to both the condition of being tactile and an attunement to being affected by touch. It exceeds the world of immediate skin contact to appeal to something more abstract and barely articulable. Tactility, in this sense, is both a material property and a phenomenon, both substance and process, matter and event. 

This paper reflects on these various ‘folds’ or levels of tactility and how these are productively configured in contemporary artefact design. Design is a vehicle to examine the interface not only between perception and meaning (Kazmierczak, 2003), but also between representing and experiencing, interpreting and feeling. It is through design artefacts that “sensory experience is given specific intensities and extensities, shapes and meanings” (Heywood, 2017). To build an analytic framework that is conducive to the analysis of the tactile in the context of design, it is productive to recognise the convergence of various modes of perception and open ourselves to a multitude of readings and a variety of affective experiences. This approach to thinking ‘with’ tactility is illustrated by means of a single type of object, the chair, as found in the material-oriented and experimental design practices of Charlotte Kingsnorth, studio högl borowski, and Marija Puipaitė. To unpack the representational references and experiential, material dimensions that give rise to a sense of tactility in their design work, this paper will draw upon Peircean and Greimasian (plastic) semiotics, as well as the concepts of affect (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980) and ‘material intra-activity’ (Barad, 2007), respectively.

The purpose of this paper is to make a case for the convergence of representational theories and what Thrift has called “non-representational work” (2008). These seemingly antithetical fields constitute different ways of sensing and knowing, enabling us to grasp how the various folds of tactility are expressed in experimental design practices, conceptual thinking and material outcomes. Of special interest is the way the non-representational might be embedded within the representational to produce an affective encounter for the ‘beholder’. In doing so, this paper contributes to “an approach that brings the material back in without rejecting the legitimate insights of the linguistic turn” (Hekman, 2010) and addresses recent calls for an interdisciplinary attitude towards an aesthetics of touch (Hayes and Rajko, 2017).

Sophie Anne Declerck

Institute for Design Innovation, Loughborough University London

Sophie Declerck is a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Design Innovation at Loughborough University London. Her research interests span sensory design, design aesthetics, and semiotic meaning-making practices. Her PhD project, which is funded by a Techne AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership, explores the vocabularies, tropes and affective atmospheres of tactility with the aim of building an analytic framework to inform the analysis and design of material artefacts. Sophie holds an MA in History of Design from the Royal College of Art/V&A Museum, and brings to her research an academic background in the Classics, Applied Linguistics and Fine Art.

non-representational theory
material design
plastic semiotics