Tactile Poetics: Touch and Contemporary Writing (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

A new critical perspective on the relationship between text and tact in 20th- and 21st-century literature and theory

The intimate links between the page and the skin have been explored by writers for centuries. Yet despite the current interest in the surface of the body, the relationship between touching and writing remains neglected. Drawing on new debates in deconstruction and psychoanalysis, this book provides an original and timely intervention in the field. Exploring insights from Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and through close readings of work by writers such as Anne Carson, Siri Hustvedt and Michael Ondaatje, Tactile Poetics investigates the law of tact that always interrupts contact, and examines the different ways that literary texts work to ‘touch’ their readers.

Key Features

  • Conceptualises the relationship between touching and writing through a theory of ‘tactile poetics’
  • Offers in-depth analysis of a range of literary genres including short fiction, poetry, autobiography, correspondence and the novel
  • Examines writings on touch by Anzieu, Cixous, Derrida, Freud and Nancy
  • Explores the intersections between creative and critical thinking and writing

Tactile Poetics is an original and compelling study. It is also, in its singularly gentle manner, a work of pressing importance. Interweaving lucid and thought-provoking expositions of Anzieu, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Nancy and others, with deft and inventive readings of an adventurous range of recent fictional and poetic texts, Jackson’s book shows how the subject of touch is at the heart of contemporary writing and theory.’ – Professor Nicholas Royle, University of Sussex

Tactile Poetics takes excellent care of the intellectual and imaginative possibilities of its subject. Jackson’s lucid, subtle engagement with touch and associated topics combines a poet’s sensitivity, scholar’s rigour and thinker’s curiosity. Her book belongs alongside classic studies by Anzieu, Connor and Nancy.’ – Dr Sarah Wood, University of Kent and Guild of Psychotherapists

‘… [G]round-breaking … Anyone interested in tactile criticism where touch is both a physical reality and a metaphor should definitely get in touch with Jackson’s book.’ – Forum for Modern Language Studies (April, 2016)



Literature and Telephony

Sarah’s current research examines the relationship between telephony and literature, exploring the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers and thinkers from the nineteenth-century to the present day. Considering the ways that the telephone has changed how we read and write, it analyses the impact of developing telephone technologies on language and form in texts by Mark Twain, Muriel Spark, Haruki Murakami and Sara Ruhl, among others. Unique to this project is a collaboration with both the Science Museum and the BT Archives in London. This research is funded by an AHRC Leadership Fellows Award.

Crossed Wires: Project Outline

In a letter to Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee (2013) argues that the mobile phone creates significant structural difficulties for the writer: ‘If people … are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue … just isn’t possible’. The implications of the telephone for the literary text, however, extend far beyond this, and although the effect of the telephone on narrative structure has long been acknowledged by writers such as Coetzee, the wider cultural, political and textual implications of failed and interrupted communication – of crossed wires, phone-hacking and missed calls – remain neglected in literary scholarship. My 20-month research project addresses this deficiency by exploring the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the 19th century to the present day. Its aim is to think creatively and critically about the co-emergence of the human and the machine by exploring the relationship between telephony and Anglophone literature from across the globe.

The project will result in a monograph which will provide a sustained analysis of the effects of telephony on the literary text. Examining how the telephone has transformed reading and writing practices, it will explore the impact of developing telephone technologies on drama, fiction, poetry and non-fiction by a wide range of authors including Mourid Barghouti, Hélène Cixous, Graham Greene, Tom Raworth, Will Self, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh. The analysis will pay particular attention to the possibilities for technology to destabilise relations of presence and absence, near and far, and life and death; in so doing, it will draw on critical work by Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Avital Ronell and Peter Szendy. Performing the effects of telephony on language and form, the monograph will interrogate the telephone’s role and representation in light of recent mobile, cellular and smartphone technologies.

In a culture of heightened auditory surveillance and increased public awareness of the impact of smartphone technologies on public health and modes of interpersonal communication, this research has far-reaching significance beyond the academy. Unique to this cross-disciplinary project is a collaboration with the Science Museum, whose world-class resources include significant collections on global developments in telecommunications, and the BT Archives, the repository of the world’s oldest communications company. Responding to current concerns surrounding telephone usage (e.g. text-speak, phone addiction, sexting), and contributing to high-profile scholarship in the field, this project brings together creative and critical approaches in order to investigate how our existing use of telecommunications can help us to find new ways of conceiving ethical and creative technological futures.

Sarah’s publications in this area include ‘Derrida on the Line’, published in Derrida Today.

‘Derrida on the Line’: Abstract

By offering us a voice that is both at a distance and inside one’s own head, the telephone causes interference in thinking and writing. But despite the multiple telephones that echo in and across Jacques Derrida’s work, and specifically his writing to and with Hélène Cixous, it is only since Derrida’s death that critical interest in the phone has fully emerged, with work by Nicholas Royle (2006), Eric Prenowitz (2008), Geoffrey Bennington (2013) and Lynn Turner (2015) stressing the value of staying on the line. Engaging with Derrida, however, is not simply a matter of picking up the receiver. For the telephone is also, Derrida insists in H.C. for Life (2006), a ‘poetico-technical invention’, that is, the telephone is ‘thought itself’. This paper is about how the telephone ‘thinks’ Derrida, about how it remembers Derrida, and about how it offers us a line for re-imagining his voice. Bound up with the uncanny mechanisms of the telephone, it invites readers to participate in long-distance calling – listening across species, texts and worlds.

Sarah has also published widely on psychoanalysis, deconstruction and literature in academic journals such as Oxford Literary Review and Angelaki. View full details of her publications at Nottingham Trent University.