Sedgwick on Crisis of Meaning/Metonymy

Re-reading Touching Feeling at the same time as writing about weather and metonoymy while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I was struck by a paragraph about texture, touch and vision:

“If texture involves more than one sense, it is also true that the different properties, and radically divergent modern histories, of different perceptual systems are liable to torque and splay the history of texture as well. The sense of physical touch itself, at least so far, has been remarkably unsusceptible to being amplified by technology. Women who do breast self examination are occasionally taught to use a film of liquid soap, a square of satiny cloth, or even a pad of thin plastic filled with a layer of water to make the contours of their breast more salient to their fingers. But this minimal sensory enhancement is merely additive compared to the literally exponential enhancements of visual stimulus since Leeuwenhoek and Newton. The narrator of Middlemarch, one of the definitive novels of texture, can zoom in a mere two sentences from telescope to microscope (Eliot 83). Once such visual range becomes commonplace the authority of the fingers will never be the same – though their very resistance to amplification may mean that they represent one kind of perceptual gold standard. Indeed, the increasingly divergent physical scales (and highly differential rates of their change) that characterize the relation between touch and vision in the modern period result in understandings of texture that make it as apt to represent crises and fissures of meaning as metonymic continuities” (15-16).

  1. I can empathise with the idea of breast self exam as mere additive to the kinds of visual imaging technologies used to assess my breast tissue once I found the small lump. My experience with the lump also helps me to understand what Sedgwick is getting at with the idea of texture as something that seems like a “metonymic continuity” but actually can signify a crisis of meaning. The texture of the lump and the range of stories I myself about it during the time before I asked my GP to investigate it further are so very different to the ones that were then told about my tissue after the diagnositc work-up with my surgeon and my ultimate decision to have a bilateral mastectomy. With my breast tissue as the object connecting me to my medical team, the difference in what this experience means for my surgeon, breast care nurse, registrar doctor, and the range of other professionals I’ve encountered is vastly different to what it means for my personal life, career, relationship with partner, son and family and friends and so on. Indeed, the texture of the lump is the link between all these things and it is a crisis of selfhood.
  2. With regard to the final sentence (“the increasingly divergent physical scales … that characterize the relation between touch and vision in the modern period result in understandings of texture that make it as apt to represent crises and fissures of meaning as metonymic continuities”) in my own work I would replace “texture” with “weather”. I always loved Renu Bora’s essay in Novel Gazing (“Outing Texxture”), which is the essay that Sedgwick is building on here, but I hadn’t realised exactly why. In my work, the weather also functions as seeming metonymic continuity but actually signals crisis of meaning. I think I will have to go and re-read Bora’s old essay and reflect on how my own explorations of stormy metonymies are similar/different to his understanding of texxture.
  3. Touch/Vision for Sedgwick, Haptic/Optic for Haraway.
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