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Peter Gabriel

On Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” in a Time of Forbidden Touch

Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” perfectly captures the agonizing isolation that so many of us have been experiencing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dare We Risk Touch?

There’s something ethical and political to the democracy of Gabriel’s touch here, a kind of total welcome approaching the radical vision of hospitality that Jacques Derrida has articulated. It’s utterly open and risky—which only emphasizes the need to constantly attempt to practice it (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000). That riskiness certainly weighs heavily on us at the moment—I doubt there are many of us who will feel comfortable for quite a long time, if ever, with shaking a long series of unknown hands.

We should be wary of another kind of riskiness: does the other want to be touched? Do they want to involve themselves in a socialite, communal flesh-pressing that seems to me that it might hold some vaguely masculine shape? (I can’t, for now, think of handshaking without unbidden visions rising of Trump’s hypermasculine, predatory, magnetic greetings with world leaders. He so often looked as if he were attempting to pull them inside himself—quite another version entirely of getting somebody touched.)

Gabriel’s total hospitality comes out most directly, but briefly, in the second verse. Here something startling takes place that the emphasis on handshakes would seem to preclude: we find that the other of our touch need not be human.

There you stand before me, all that fur and all that hair / Oh, do I dare? I have the touch

Here “having the touch” is a kind of self-reassurance, a reminding oneself that yes, I dare, for my position from the start has been that I have this capacity for touch that must be exercised at every opportunity. “I have the touch” is also a kind of immediate note, letting us know at the instant of the touch that this touch with an Other, who is radically unknown is, descriptively speaking, no different from the generally banal touch of our handshakes at the corporate meeting. That is; it takes on an identical grammar handed down from the song’s title, despite the harrowing uncertainties of identifying its object. 

But who is this Other? Whose determining traits are fur and the capacity for standing? The line makes me think of a dog, most obviously, and of the anxiety and reticence involved at present in touching even a dog, of approaching another passing at a vaguely acceptable distance on a sidewalk, say, on an afternoon walk. The dog, who has little interest in Covid protocols, evinces the kind of indiscriminate excitement at touching and knowing someone that Gabriel’s narrator does. Those immortal words arise—“can I pet the dog?”—likely unspoken, as we pass, eyes askance, each practicing the flimsy pretext of simple obliviousness.

Except, in all likelihood, the dog. This is truly a do I dare? Do I dare risk angering the dog’s companion, who may perceive my touching (and, we shudder to think, perhaps not wrongly) as a contaminating that will then pass to them and their loved ones? Do I dare risk the same to myself? The epidemiological logic that we have been forced to view our world through forces us to see this dog as primarily a possible carrier of infection, as a vector.

Although this vision of a furry, touchable Other makes me think of my many (always avoided) encounters with canine others on those occasions on which I have ventured into the wild that the outside has become, Gabriel’s lyrics only make room for specific speculation of this kind, they do not assert it. It’s truly only the introduction of fur that makes one pause, the aura of someone erect before us carrying what can only be a descriptor of the animal, the mammalian. Or is “all that fur”, and then, “all that hair”, a kind of blinking, a self-correction, made necessary by “the dark” in which the encounter takes place?

Is this perhaps only a poorly lit run-in with an individual in a heavy fur coat? But then why would daring be needed? Unless, of course we can’t shake the sense that this one before us yet retains something uncanny about them, something that is human, maybe, but not quite.

This need not send us down the path to reading the song’s lines as a meeting with some kind of wolfman—although perhaps the apparently dubious humanity of this other treads in that realm of the Freudian uncanny, that unsettling presence of something that both is and is not us, repeating our body with a difference. Moving in this direction could potentially lead us to a link with Gabriel’s own discussion of the song. We can take a cue from the psychological discourse on touch as an essential component of brain development in infants.

More interesting than a kind of correlative, accumulative concept of touch—more contact equals better “development”, etc.—is the possibility of reinvesting the infantile sense of uncertainty that Freud posits. Freud describes the uncanny as taking place “when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression”. (Leaving aside here the more fraught aspect of the uncanny that describes the resurgence of “primitive beliefs”; Freud 2017).

The touch of Gabriel’s song, from this Freudian perspective, seems to willfully draw out the uncanny—rather than avoiding the disconcerting furriness (or is it only a fuzziness?) of our shadowy companion. Rather than further repressing or running from that nonhuman specter that disquietingly overlaps with our own so-sure humanity, we might instead reach out, touch them. We should indeed “revive” those senses of others that we have set aside by allowing them to impress their lives upon ours, their flesh upon ours. It’s like creating an “impression” in the physical sense that the papermaker does: making a mark, leaving a stamp. This requires a return to infantile wonder, a willful forgetting of the stratifications that structure our social world in the time of pandemics.

We should be very wary of the ways that Gabriel invests this scene of an uncertain encounter with darkness and dehumanization, as we should look with suspicion upon the certainty that “fur” takes us immediately beyond the human. Is not “fur” also used to describe body hair, particularly that of women (by men), in a reflection of this nonhuman logic? Even (especially?) so, we can read the lines as evincing a kind of hospitality that overcomes prejudice and makes way for a touching that precludes racism, sexism, anthropocentrism. I want to make contact with you because you are different. Because I can’t bear touching only myself. I can’t continue to close in upon myself.

This is risky, it requires daring, and it requires hospitality, but it is “the thing I understand” as Gabriel sings—the only thing. I understand that only you have the capacity to tap me into a different world, and I may do the same for you. We understand that by touching each other we might understand one another and the world differently.

Perhaps very soon we will be able to again touch one another. Perhaps mass vaccination will make possible the unreservedness of Gabriel’s touch. Perhaps we will have casual touch again. Perhaps not. It has certainly become conceivable over the course of the preceding months that the future of touch is not to be one of absolute “security” (to recall the album housing the original version of “I Have the Touch”). We can only at present wait—wait for “ignition”, wait for the “spark”. Wait for the time when you and I might collide and feel joy. When fear has ebbed.

If this sounds naïve—and I think it does and should—it should only remind us of how out of touch we have become with the possibilities for the world, and perhaps how out of touch our world has always been with itself.

Only, only, wanting contact I’m / Only, only, wanting contact with you


Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques, and Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. Stanford University Press. 2000.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Translated by James Strachey. Wiley Blackwell. 2017. pp. 592-614.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. Translated by Richard A. Rand. Fordham University Press. 2008. pp. 2-121.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Sense of the World. Minnesota Archive Ed., translated by Jeffrey S. Librett. University of Minnesota Press. 1997.

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