Touchlines: Manual inscription and haptic perception

Tim Ingold*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


What happens when we see? What happens when we read? Unless we are visually impaired and rely on some tactile script such as Braille, we surely use our eyes for both readings and seeing. Is it not curious, therefore, that writing is so often described as a non-visual medium? For the majority of scholars who spend long hours in the company of written texts, eye strain is an occupational hazard, and most would be as lost without their spectacles as they would be without pen and paper or, nowadays, perhaps, without a laptop. Yet they persist in the view that to see and to read are not just different but fundamentally incompatible. I want to argue that this view rests on certain assumptions about what it means to see, and about what is entailed in reading, that have their source in modern practices of image-making and type-lettering and in theories of perception and cognition that rest on them. These theories presuppose what I shall call an optical relation between mind and world. It is a relation modelled on the workings of the eye but by no means restricted to them. Long before human beings were producing images by means of optical devices that replicated these workings, however, or producing texts by imprinting letter-sequences in type, they were using their hands to draw and write. To take the practices of drawing and handwriting as our point of departure entails an alternative, haptic understanding of the mind-world relation. This relation is modelled on the workings of the hand but, again, is by no means restricted to them. The distinction between the optical and the haptic, in short, does not exactly coincide with, but actually crosscuts, that between eye and hand and the sensory registers of vision and touch. As I shall show, we can have haptic vision and optical touch, as well as haptic touch and optical vision. My principal claim, however, is that in founding both inscription and perception in the work of the hand, the apparent incompatibility of seeing and reading can be resolved, and the distinction between image and text overcome.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Materiality of Writing
Subtitle of host publicationA Trace-Making Perspective
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781134986392
ISBN (Print)9781138679726
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Taylor & Francis.


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