Metaphors of tactility are often used to describe the considerable ease that skilled individuals display in the performance of certain actions; a pianist who has a deft ‘touch’ or a footballer with a ‘feel’ for the game. While such terms denote skill, they tend to mask the process of its acquisition, suggesting an intuitive ability rather than a technique perfected over time through practice. This is similarly the case with phenomenologies of the body that emphasise an almost seamless meshing of subject and object in the acquisition of skill. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example, in discussing a typist’s touch, describes this as ‘knowledge in the hands’ but doesn’t fully explain how it gets there. While he considers this a ‘knowledge bred of familiarity’ and attests to the power of habit in the body ‘appropriating fresh instruments’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1999: 143-144), this implies a pedagogy whereby acquiring a skill is simply learnt as a matter of course. Such physical capacities, however, are not just learnt, they are also often taught. In the context of children learning to write and their production of text through the use of a pencil, this is an important distinction. Children do not simply acquire the capacity to write, they are taught to do so and the pedagogies that affect this process are instrumental to their embodied and sensuous competence. Writing is not simply an individual or psychological practice, it is profoundly socio-cultural, not least of which because of the pedagogic relations that lead to its acquisition, as well as the role literacy plays in the formation of citizen subjectivities and the unequal distribution of cultural capital. Particular pedagogies of home and school result in varying degrees of competence but what is typically given emphasis is the various products that writing enables and that form the basis for determining a child’s performance at school. Unlike with reading, little consideration is given to the cultural dimensions of acquiring the capacity to write1; the various practices in which children engage to perfect this important skill that is crucial for effective social and political participation. Much is made of ensuring individuals – especially the marginalised – have a political voice. It is often considered the test of an effective democracy, but what about other senses and their role in the production of literate citizens? How
important is touch, for instance, and what is its role in learning to write? With the current emphasis on computers in education the facility of handwriting receives little attention. Students may now work more and more with computers but this technology is yet to replace pens and pencils in schools . . . if indeed it ever will entirely. By and large, students are still taught to write using a pen or pencil.2 Writing is, of course, a technology itself, but a technology understood as an ensemble of objects, human capacities and social contexts. Conventionally, technology, is conceived as artefactual rather than embodied and processual; an object to be used rather than the skill involved in using it (Ong 1982: 81). This chapter explores the importance of touch and the incorporation of the sensibility of becoming literate that are both undervalued within contemporary literacy pedagogy and under-theorised within the Humanities and Social Sciences where it receives little, if any, attention. We firstly examine the technical processes involved in learning to write before attending to the inequalities that can result in classrooms when the importance of touch and pedagogies of incorporation are little understood. Typically, the ‘culturalness’ of pedagogy is conceived in terms of the wider social relations of power that lie behind or above pedagogy; here, we want to explore how deep culture goes.