33. Touch, Attention & Tenderness


“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”1
Silvia Benso

So, let’s recap.

In the last post we saw that Pollock single-handedly dispensed with the services of art critics, due to his classic work replacing their words with a confrontation that can only be attained in person. Such a confrontation delivers, as Levinas might have said, a “social relationship”2 between the work of art and the person standing before it. In addition, a “social relationship” means that the spectator can no longer be a subject but rather something more like a friend.

As with a lot of the posts that have gone before, we are circling above a terrain, examining it from fresh perspectives rather than laying out a straight line of tarmac that slices through it. The philosophy I’m interested in seeks not to drive via the shortest route from A to B, dismissing the scenery as it goes in order to get there first and be proclaimed the victor. Instead, the philosophy that I’m interested in seeks to stop, breathe, and take in the environment that surrounds the topic under discussion and then move on to a different viewing point upon the same issue. Hopefully then a three-dimensional picture, or understanding, will take place. It won’t be the simplest to explain. However, perhaps more like a novel that one gently allows to seep into one’s thoughts, the perspectives start to work together to push softly at one’s thoughts and ideas to maybe realign them. Or, possibly better yet, to send ripples through what Willard Van Orman Quine described as our ‘web of belief’ so that after we have concluded the thorough examination our ideas, our ‘web of belief’, will be altered and maybe, just maybe, that will be for the better.

Web of Belief.fw

The process I’m describing, of course, is a type of wisdom and clearly my terrain analogy contrasts such exercises in wisdom-seeking to those of knowledge-seeking. Knowledge gaining is an acquisition, much like the winning of a trophy, whereas wisdom gaining is more like the physical growth of a child into a teenager. Wisdom alters and changes who you are. Trophies aren’t you. Plus, trophies can get broken, lost or forgotten about.

Broken Trophy.fw

So, remembering Pollock’s statement “it confronts you”3 and this leading to Levinasian thoughts upon social relationships, with the spectator becoming more like a friend. We would be wise (reference intended) to recall Silvia Benso’s views in the post prior to the one on Pollock, before moving on.

In her attempt to push Levinas and Heidegger towards each other, to generate a ‘love of things’, Silvia Benso tentatively nudges them as follows:

“So that the appeal may be heard, a questioning of the mode of being of things is required which lets them be as things.”4

Briefly, this means that although there is a Heideggerian priority regarding things, there is still an ethical encounter, with its requirement for ‘a Levinasian subject’ to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing. This is because an ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision, because that vision will obliterate any ethical possibility.

Totalising gaze.fw

Moving on, then, with our previous perspectives in mind we are left with Benso’s words, wondering how we are to let things “be as things” and also how we might actually enter into a “social relationship” with them. I’m delighted to say that Benso does not leave us hanging.

Benso attempts such “a questioning of the mode of being of things” by employing new mediums of touch, attention, tenderness, and festival. We shall have to wait for ideas on festival until a later post, however her thoughts on touch, attention and tenderness most certainly won’t leave us facedown on the keyboard with boredom.


For her own beginning, Benso went back to the Heidegger of Being and Time and his own influence:

“The Greeks had an appropriate term for ‘Things’: πράγματα [pragmata] – that is to say, that which one has to do with in one’s concernful dealings (πραξις [praxis]).”5

Benso’s interpretation of Heidegger’s reading of “The Greeks” is that touch is the “privileged mode of coming into a relation with things” and that “when it comes to the possibility of entering an ethical relation with things, touch retains a primacy unparalleled by any other sensory organ.”6 Although acknowledging Heidegger’s subsequent reflections on touch as ambiguous, Benso continues to explore this mode of being of things, by turning directly to a Greek source:

“What is most puzzling to Aristotle, and hence most remarkable about touch, is the fact that touch alone, among all other senses, perceives by immediate contact. Whereas all the other senses necessitate a medium… direct proximity happens not through vision, smelling, or hearing, but only through touch.”7


The “immediate contact” and “direct proximity” given by touch are instructive to Benso, because there is no intermediary:

“The presence of a mediator amounts to the presence of a third perspective from which the relation between the I and the other can be overviewed from a common standpoint, and therefore bridged and totalized in the commonality of an encompassing embrace… Where mediation is present, the other of the Other disappears.”8

I understand Benso’s new combination of Levinas with Aristotle as providing a focus for when we touch something, because in that touch we experience it directly as it is and not as we expect to experience it. Such an experience is pure, unsullied, and can’t be interfered with or manipulated by the filter of our memories or desires. The totalising gaze of our eyes casting their sweeping, judgemental, glare upon the world is removed and discarded when we touch the thing we are looking upon, because our consciousness can’t apply any preconceived layers of interpretation to that touch. The touch is instant, raw and precise and, crucially for Benso, unmediated. They are no lies or deceptions we can tell ourselves about the experience of touching something. The touch just is as it is. As such, we get direct contact with the absolute otherness of the thing we are touching. The sensation of touch is not something that we can concoct and conjure as if it came from within our own mind. This means that, as far as Benso is concerned, alterity is preserved by touch. Which is in contrast to vision where, because mediation is involved, alterity can be dissolved. The raking eye destroys the otherness of the other whilst the caress of a touch allows that otherness to just simply be. Heidegger would surely have approved.


Possibly to gain Levinas’ hypothetical approval, Benso introduces another facet to touch: the focussed property of encountering “its intentional objects always one at a time, in their individuality and particularity and never in the abstractness of their universality.”9 Such “individuality” when touching ensures that the person touching is focused on the thing itself and does not amalgamate several objects into a blurred, easily dismissed mess or into an abstract conception based upon a universal idea of the thing in question. The thing being touched retains its presence as it is through touch, when vision, for example, might threaten to overwrite that presence in any number of ways. Again alterity is kept intact because, as we experience one thing at a time, we have to be focused upon that one thing. If we were looking at it our gaze could drift off it onto something else or we could start to zoom in on a particular physical quality about the thing rather than leaving the thing in its wholeness and otherness.

Touch, then, according to Benso, provides for a connection between the subject and the thing that maintains the alterity of the latter by avoiding any possible mediation or universalization. The problem of a totalising vision is hence overcome, but this doesn’t mean that we now automatically have an ethical encounter with the thing just because we touch it rather than look at it. Touch, for Benso, was just the beginning.

Touch is the begining.fw

Having shown one way in which the “mode of being of things” may be questioned, outside of the totalising gaze of vision, Benso introduces another non-totalising approach to things, but this time concerning the attitude, rather than the physicality, of the subject.

For Benso, attention “becomes an essential component of the human side of the ethics of things.”10 For her, attention is rooted in ad-tending, the moving toward; the concentrating upon an object which at the same time is active and also passive:

“Tenaciously and persistently, attention tends toward something. And yet, in such a fervor of activity, attention can be successful, can avoid falling into invasiveness only if it lets itself be directed by that toward which it tends.”11


What I think Benso means here is that a form of passivity is required that can guide the activity of attention to ensure we attend with both patience and humility. This is of course in stark contrast to the totalising vision that blinds the objects of its enquiry so that no shadow can remain under its blazing light. Benso is quick to assert, though, that such passive attention does not mean that “servility.”12 Instead, there is

“the dignity of a deference that wishes to welcome and assert differences and otherness… What is deferred in this movement of humility is, primarily the power of a will that wants to modify, rather than being modified by things.”13

This is great and should not be easily passed over. What is deferred is the will that wants to modify. That is a fantastic way of articulating how we should be in our attention. The enemy that was, for Levinas, the totalising vision is now, for Benso, the will that wants to modify. Hark, yea Nietzscheans, place to one side your hammers and your wills. Rise up you Zen Masters who can sit and breathe next to an object without feeling the need to dominate it, own it or crush it. One needs to be humble before things if an ethical encounter is to occur. One also needs to be secure in oneself if any kind of modification is to arise in oneself via that encounter. An insecure bullish assertion “of a will that wants to modify” will never achieve an ethical encounter or, by relation, a modification in themselves, because nothing can penetrate the hard outer crust of such a wilful subject. Even if on the inside there is a curious infant yearning for comfort.

Inner Child.fw

The pendulum of active and passive, though, must not swing too far toward the passive because the danger of “servility”, as Benso prompts, is equally present. If one is servile then it will not be a modification that takes place but rather an infatuation with overtones of obsequiousness and pandering that reduce the subject to the mental equivalent of one of Elvis’ ‘Yes-men’; at best a mirror and at worst an narcissist’s enabler.

Again, as with the illustration of ‘touch’, alterity is preserved in the thing when attention is given to it. However, it is vital that with such attention the subject is considered in terms of its activity and passivity so that a balance can be sought. If such a balance is achieved then alterity will remain because the subject will not become “extinguished” by “disappear[ing] into the things it encounters,”14 and nor will the object be driven over remorselessly by the subject-cum-juggernaut. Otherness is only to be found in that delicate middle ground betwixt vapidity and juggernauts.


Benso continues her pursuit of attention by turning to tenderness, as “attentive touch”15 which she reveals is inspired by, and indebted to, Levinas’ use of the concept in connection to the feminine in Totality and Infinity.16 Taking the theme of balance between activity and passivity further she writes:

“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”17

Tenderness is the welcome that waits “for the other to make the first move,” and then “caresses by a light touch.”18 It is also “a way of being”, “a metaphysical horizon”, “a sentiment but not a psychological feeling” and is “aroused by the appeal of things.”19 Because of these “feminine”20 qualities tenderness makes for an ethical encounter when placed in direct proximity with a thing. Tenderness becomes an attitude, through which a new mode of being can arise, that could otherwise turn everything to stone in its Medusa-like stare.

Medusa alt.fw

Benso thoughts on tenderness consequently aim towards “a way of being” that deals solely in the here and now:

“Analogous to attention, tenderness is always tending to the particular thing which inspires it with the movement of its presencing. Therefore, tenderness is always in the present, occupied by the temporality of the instant in which it unfolds itself.” 21

Tenderness gives a direct, and instant, connection to a thing that allows for a two-way encounter, an ethical encounter, to take place.


To try and give context and provide a known example of where an ethical encounter of tenderness can take place Benso next turns her attention towards what it is to be in a festival. But that, my tender and patient friends, will have to wait until another time. Actually, a very different time, as will become clear…

But in the meanwhile, as Otis said, why not ‘Try a little tenderness’?


  1. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, xxxvii.
  2. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 85.
  3. Pollock. J. quoted in Berton Roueché, ‘Unframed Space’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, 19.
  4. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 66.
  5. Heidegger, M., Being and Time.Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, 96-97.
  6. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 159.
  7. Ibid., 160-161.
  8. Ibid., 161.
  9. Ibid., 162.
  10. Ibid., 164.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 165.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 166.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  17. Ibid., xxxvii.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 166-167.
  20. See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.
  21. Ibid., 169.

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