‘Perhaps we can be more careful in our touching and more critical of our being touched, more careful with the tendency to equate touch with identifying, identifying with seeing, seeing with knowing, and knowing with possessing.’
I’ve recently taken to making chalkboards; to make a chalkboard you first prepare the surface; you sand it back and apply a priming coat of paint. You then apply two coats of chalkboard paint (30 minutes apart). After allowing it to dry for 10 days you cure or season the chalkboard by thoroughly covering the whole surface with chalk. After wiping away this initial layer you have a ready-to-use chalkboard.
My earliest memory of a chalkboard would be of Bart Simpson, writing affirmations over and over again as both a kind of confession and a punishment. And the more you follow the chalkboard the further it entrenches itself within the classroom or the lecture theatre, however it finds itself elsewhere, I think of the hallways at Frontyard and Adrian Piper’s work ‘Everything Will Be Taken Away’. What I find myself interested in is the way we can read discipline, touch and texture upon the surface of the chalkboard, and the possibilities that emerge from this.
Texture makes Touch
When thinking of the surface and touch in the same breath, one temporarily constitutes the other. I’m thinking about touch before touch was assigned to the fingers, the palms and the skin. It then simply becomes an interaction between surfaces. I touch with my eyes, hear out a surface with my ears, a rock is ground down over time, a river carves its way between two mountains.
Renu Bora seems to have been thinking about this contact in his account of texture, which we can imagine as synonymous with or as a characteristic of a surface. By way of Eve Sedgewick, Bora tells us that to engage with texture is to be:
‘immersed in a field of active narrative hypothesizing, testing and re-understanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time. To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does itimpinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it?’
For Bora and Sedgwick, texture operates as a means of correspondence or a kind of interface, the transfer and flow of an affect, a self-reflexive (physical) engagement, an active history, a context and a future, they stack themselves onto the surface and within its texture. A texture will hint at its history, but it tells us different things, it may entice one and push another away.
Bora’s conception of texture is both robust and flexible, it allows you to get lost in its logic, but with a freedom and lawlessness that gives form to a movement against a hegemonic understanding of touch. The narrative of a texture is the continual emergence of a history, even taking into account the event of contact as it occurs. Touch can be thought of, if only for a moment, but not contained.
Touch makes Texture
This however is not the only logic that has been placed upon texture and touch. To bring order to touch’s lawlessness, the idea has been disciplined. The relationship that touch has with discipline is at once one of being disciplined but also a means of enacting discipline.
I’m told by Michel Foucault, via Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, that discipline begins with the assignment of the self to the category of the subject, an individuation which separates each person and object from another. And it’s from this individuation that discipline carries out its correction.
Discipline would, at its core, see itself as a transformative process. It is driven by the desire to transform the perverted, the lawless or the unruly, into the disciplined and the obedient. However, this idea of obedience is unobtainable, like that of a platonic form. Discipline’s inability to create an embodiment of its own posited idealism means that it is forever called into existence by its object of interest, the undisciplined. As Moten and Harney tell us, in the eyes of discipline everything is always wrong, undisciplined and in need of correction.
To extend this disciplinary action to the ideas of touch and texture we can think of them as being bound to empiricism. Here I think of touch being assigned to the individual and to physicality, it becomes something that is held by our skin, and expelled through our fingers and palms.
In this disciplining of texture and touch, texture is no longer seen to constitute touch, rather touch constitutes texture. As a constitutive force, touch is contained, but this also marks a specific conception of the world, one in which the world is made from the individual and the human outwards. This version of touch is at once tightly bound up and endless in its application, regardless of contradiction or paradox.
Discipline and discipline
I remember thinking with Astrid about the difference between ‘discipline’ and ‘discipline’. She reads me a quote by Gordon Hall
‘The word discipline has a double meaning, one that I am very interested in. On the one hand, discipline is the tool of organization, control, subordination, oppression. Think prisons, schools, the military, the camp. But a discipline is also a field of study, a domain of knowledge, a practice, a self-imposed solitary or shared system for doing things. Sculpture is a discipline. Flogging is getting disciplined’ (Hall, 2011, Extremely Precise Objects of Ambiguous Use)
I start from a more sceptical position. One of the characteristics that binds these two definitions together is that they both revolve around a type of individuation or idealised form. For the disciplinary field, it can be an object of study or a method (sociology, for example, centres itself around ‘the social’ as its object of study), and for discipline, as told to us by Foucault, Moten and Harney, it can be the individuated subject.
These concepts don’t exist independently of each other. As a possible example: when discipline assigns the concept of touch to the individual and to physicality, it becomes the concern of science and empiricism. Touching and feeling’s relationship is now that of nerves, cells and electrical pulses.
Discipline not only reproduces itself but helps other modes of discipline to find their grounding. A discipline flows out of discipline.
Texture and touch can then be thought of as being torn between these two counter narratives, one according to Bora and Sedgewick, the other to the individuated subject and discipline.
If you were to imagine what a surface can know, one of the most knowledgeable surfaces might be the chalkboard, in a lecture hall or a classroom perhaps. Possibly a better way to think of this is: the most disciplined surface would be the chalkboard. It is often posited as the centre of spaces associated with a discipline and gives orientation to the classroom or the lecture hall. And in its most popular use, the chalkboard is instructive and public by nature, its legacy and context suggest that much of what is written on it is canonical.
It seems that discipline/s, touch and texture convene upon the chalkboard’s surface. But what also interests me is the chalkboard’s public nature and tendency to hold the written word, which brings about a relationship to the public address, the lyric and the confession. And while the chalkboard remains, in its historical and popular sense, a structure of discipline/s, it is troubled by texture’s lawlessness and entangled relationality. This conceptualisation of touch and texture brings about a different set of possibilities for how the chalkboard arranges its own history and knowledge, one that pushes against the order of discipline.
The chalkboard, both pushing against and pulling with discipline is largely defined by the material interaction (interface) between itself and chalk. Chalk is ground down by the coarseness of the chalkboard and, much like any technology of mark-making, grips to its texture, like that of graphite or ink. However, chalk doesn’t stain, rather it lends itself to an immediate and easy erasure, by a stray breath, an open hand or a damp cloth. I imagine the mark on the chalkboard holding on to the surface, in a stark but precarious arrangement.
In contrast to something like the relationship between pen and paper, the chalkboard is as much defined by the action of erasure as it is the action of mark-making. Erasure can be thought of as either a mode or action of discipline, like correcting a mistake, removing a mark or creating a blank slate.
And with this, we can employ the same contradictive process as observed by Moten and Harney. Erasure is denied, by its own inability to fulfill the idealisms that drive it, a clean chalkboard, a white wall, a perfect subject. It’s also from this kind of tunnel vision that erasure becomes solely concerned with its own conception of the immediate surface. Whether it be in a physical or abstract sense, I remain hopeful of erasure’s inability to imagine the depth within texture and its ongoing correspondence. It will inherently leave traces of what was before or miss the point altogether. The chalkboard becomes a tacit experience of discipline, but a reading of texture also tells us that it is a tacit and felt experience of denying discipline, a denial which is always present.
I keep on coming back to Hall’s thought around discipline. And Laura reminds me of this too. How, if at all, can erasure be used as a means of opposing discipline’s oppression? And I imagine embracing erasure with the inadequacy that comes from its very alignment with discipline. erasure is something that is unable to conform to the totality of discipline. Even though we erase with precision and vigour, we remember that we are not immune from enacting the violence of erasure. We place something out of view, push it into the surface – but always keep it in mind. These things stack themselves onto the texture of a surface. We are hopeful for what can take its place or emerge from its traces.
The lyric’s place upon the chalkboard isn’t immediately prominent, but I keep coming back to the chalkboard’s relationship to public settings. This doesn’t bind the chalkboard to the lyric in its content (what is written on the board) but via a continuity between the public nature of the chalkboard and the sociality of the lyric.
The intersection of the lyric and the chalkboard brings about an opposition to discipline’s individuation through the potential of this sociality, what can be shared from the surface. When the lyric, as content, finds itself within the texture of the chalkboard it is greeted with a warm familiarity. In its expression of subjectivity and the personal the lyric is not only extended by the textural structure of the chalkboard but is harboured there, hidden by texture’s depth from discipline’s erasure. It is a type of fugitive sociality. And here we can keep in mind this movement of the personal to the collective as told to us by Claudia Rankine:
‘Sometimes “I” is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it.
This makes the first person a symbol for something.
The pronoun barely holding the person together’
On a reddit thread gymnasts and climbers discuss whether they’re at risk from excessive chalk inhalation, Kernalthai writes: ‘Magnesium carbonate is also gymnastic chalk. You can look up some research studies. Short answer: it is water soluble. It will dissolve, absorb and act as a diuretic. (Make you need to pee).’ Out of all the answers on this thread, while not reassuring in its tone, I like this one the most.
We’re trying to draw knots on a chalkboard, while I copy a fencing knot you draw a bow, I remember you telling me that a bow should have small loops and long strings, and yours go all the way to the board’s edges like it’s trying to bundle up the surface. I breath in your marks and your words as they make their way into the air and onto the floor, gathering in my lungs, they’re absorbed in a metabolic flurry.
This is the type of touch I want to start thinking about.
Lorange. A, Brooks. A (Snack Syndicate), ‘For FD’ in Homework, 2020, Melbourne: Discipline. pp. 215–217.
Adrian Piper, Everything Will Be Taken Away #21, 2010–2013, Image available at: https://www.katybeltran.com/blog/vw8o09kv5a1u5j7qmgiexhego87hd3
Bora, R. ‘Outing Texture’ in Sedgewick. E.K. (ed.) Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, 1997, Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 94–127.
Sedgewick. E.K, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy and Performativity, 2003, Durham, Durham: Duke University Press. p. 13.
Moten. F, Harney. S, ‘A Partial Education’ in All Incomplete, 2022, London: Minor Compositions. pp. 62–77.
Rankine. C, Citizen, 2014, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. p. 71.