T0UCH1NG N01SE: Toward a Corporeal Topography – Krystin Gollihue

To begin, let us define code as storytelling: for every time my spine cracks, run an image.png that teaches me my body back to me. For every nerve that fires, create the surface of my body circulating through other bodies.

Let us define code as a tracing: a system of inscribing and enacting inputs that translate, inscribe, and enact back onto us. A map of our topography: where we show up online, where we show up in the here and now, where our bodies become electric.

I begin with these definitions as a way of understanding how computation shapes and connects bodies, which is both the input and output for T0UCH1NG N01SE. The project considers how code creates a lived sensation of the self, and how this sensing can feed back onto other systems of connection and disconnection. I begin with the configuration of my own body: how an interiority of trauma marks and is marked by an outside of skin, humans, technologies, touch, gesture, and sound. The code of T0UCH1NG N01SE becomes a new space for creation: it calls up the electricity of bodies; it brings to light the ways bodies are represented in online and offline space across time; and it converts these topographies into new systems of distributed feeling. I situate this project in theoretical conversations about performativity and disability, and end with how I have been brought back to the body through an embodied relationship to computational touch.

Story as Theory: Exigency

To begin, let us define a story in which T0UCH1NG N01SE can be situated. Story is foundational to theory and is the place where critical understandings of the world begin (Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab, 2014). Story is the embodiment of abstraction, where we feel first in our bones the things that happen to us and shape our surfaces (Ahmed, 2004). Story is a code for bringing interiority into a collective memory and knowing. Let us define a story where the body can begin.

As a young woman, I was in a car accident and suffered several fractures in my cervical and thoracic spine, the worst of which was a distal radial fracture of T-7, right around where my sternum is. I underwent a procedure that still affects sensation in my body to this day: in effect, I was glued back together using cadaver marrow and several rods and screws. I was in an upper body prosthetic cast for the last three months of my senior year of high school and still have the scar running up the middle of my back from the surgery. While physical therapy has brought much of the feeling back to the surgical site, I still have trouble sensing touch.

Sometimes, children or curious adults will ask, What’s that scar on your back from? For the longest time, I didn’t tell the truth, but something fantastical, something better: a hammerhead shark attack, you know, the straight-billed mouth? I lived to tell the tale! Or I deflected to how I had been pieced together: I’m basically a zombie now. A cyborg goddess. These figures which I encounter now through posthuman scholars like Braidotti (2004) and Haraway (1991) were a method by which I avoided feeling, where I could not sense the damaged nerves in my back, and where I could not face my body’s inability to know itself. This disconnection showed up in the work I created as an early-career academic and artist: poems where the “I” was never me, photographs of a body distorted by the frame, or theories of the mind’s triumph over its material. I had not only broken my body; trauma had configured a break in my most intimate circuitry, the connection between sense of self and sense of flesh.

T0UCH1NG N01SE is therefore an attempt to build that connection that has been lost, to tell a new story of the desire that emerges from a circulation of spine, fluid, wire, and code. It is a way of understanding both how bodies trace and get traced upon, and how computation, a seemingly disembodied method for producing meaning, can connect a body back to itself in the wake of trauma.

On December 1, 2016, I performed T0UCH1NG N01SE as part of a graduate seminar taught by Dr. Helen Burgess. I painted the scarred, broken, and damaged parts of my back with Bare Conductive[1] body paint, a conductive ink that can transfer the body’s electricity into the power needed to run a computer program. My painted body was then connected to an Arduino Touch Board via copper wires and alligator clip jumper cables. During the performance, participants “touched” the painted scars that have configured a physical and psychical topography of disconnection (Grosz, 1994). The amount of conductive energy that transfered to me was dependent on the pressure of participants’ touch as well as their situated bodies in that moment and in that place – all kinds of biochemical processes can affect the body’s electricity. This electricity was then used as the input value in an Arduino program that drew a Perlin noise flow field in real time. The frame rate and thickness of the visualization changed depending on the pressure the participant used when touching me.

While watching their touch manifest on a projected screen, participants also listened to audio recordings and remixes of Google search results when searching for my name. These auditory traces were mostly related to poetic works that I had published online in the years after my spinal injury. The sound file also includes a description of the Krystins that show up in Google Images, a clip from a song by a country musician with my name, and a few studies done on my particular spinal injury. Some of these sources could not be transduced into a soundbite, so I extended the degree of proximity. For example, I used a sound file of Ezra Pound reading one of the Cantos as a representation of a news article that describes some Poundian “poetry graffiti” I made in college. These sound files were mixed, distorted, and cut together so that participants could experience another layer of tracing as they traced me.

A second performance was held at the Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media Symposium as part of a multimedia showcase. In this happening, I responded to feedback that participants might not feel comfortable touching me directly, especially on the keloid scars of my back. As Symposium attendees walked through the showcase, they were asked to place a thimble attached with a cable to the T0UCH1NG N01SE system on their fingers and touch a place on my arm that was also scarred and painted in conductive paint. These scars came from working in kitchens throughout my early twenties, and while these interactions with the world did not produce nerve damage, my arms are fairly callous from this type of work. Participants were again encouraged to play around with pressure to change the image that unfolded before them.

Theory as Story: A Volatile Body

In the visualizations included here, I can see several intersections of the flow field occurring. What are these contact zones? What are they configurations of, and what are they representing? How do we characterize the body that walks into T0UCH1NG N01SE versus the body that walks out? Both volatile, both vibrant, to be sure. But what is that process of connecting, loving, and desiring that T0UCH1NG N01SE has allowed me to regain?

In a discussion of Spinozan monism, Elizabeth Grosz (1994) writes that bodies are “historical, social, cultural weavings of biology” and that the “total state of the body at a particular moment is a function of the body’s own formal pattern and inner constitution on one hand and, on the other, the influence of ‘external’ factors, such as other bodies” (p. 12). This interior-exterior interaction is what constitutes the self. The body is a site of inscription, an entity marked by “desire and signification, at the anatomical, physiological, and neurological levels” (p. 60).

Grosz’s claim that the body is a site of a synesthetic feedback loop resonates with the trauma that I’m exploring in T0UCH1NG N01SE. My body has literally been inscribed with a surgical knife, and that marker is not only a visual one, but a felt, gestural, and affective one too. As a result of the ways in which I’ve has been acted upon by the force of a vehicle turning over, by the cutting action of the neurosurgeon’s tools, and by the extensive physical therapy I underwent post-surgery, I experience the world in psychically and neurologically different ways, in the way the axons in my back fire and the consciousness with which I approach simple activities like yoga, gardening, and teaching in a classroom. Grosz’s (and my) “volatile body” is a configuration of interiority and exteriority creating what she calls a psychic topography, a multidimensional map of a body that is an effect of moving through the world.

In similar terms, Karen Barad (2003) argues that our understanding of bodies comes from the ways elements within an assemblage intra-act in situated space and time. My body is one such phenomenon, configured by the specific intra-actions of vehicle, night, affective energy, brain chemistry, surgical knife, and physical therapy prescription, which create a momentary stabilized category of brokenness. Barad describes performativity as a “differential sense of being” (p. 817). My body is, in contact and relation to surgery, in a differential state of being and constantly reacting to itself and to outside stimuli that shift the boundaries of its body-ness.

Drawing from Baradian performativity, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2011) describes the ways that disabled bodies are particular performances of intra-actions. Instead of subject and object being inscribed through movement, bodies fit or misfit, a characteristic of their relationship with the world rather than their inherent being. The scar running down my back has dictated the misfitting of my body with others; friends, a partner’s touch, or a passing glimpse differentiate me through a process of misfitting. While the body according to Grosz is marked by an environment, the body according to Garland-Thomson and Barad also configures the world through a process of mis-becoming. “To misfit renders one a misfit” (Garland-Thomson, 2011, p. 594), but it also renders the environment as a misfitting place. Two externalities push against one another, rendering a body that cannot connect or be connected to.

T0UCH: Coding Desire

T0UCH1NG N01SE continued these processes of inscription on my body, introducing code into the material arrangement of my body in ways that inscribed new relationships with the world. Electricity within the assemblage was not simply a metaphor for a new spark: the participant’s body conducted its energy into mine and rendered images that performed connection – body to body, skin to skin, revealing rather than veiling our insides and outsides. Through miniscule changes in the code – changing coefficients by a decimal point – I produced different outcomes in the visualization, different relationships between my body and participants’ bodies. When participants were encouraged to play around with pressure, they found that in some instances I couldn’t feel pain because of the scarring in my back. This created a new kind of connection where one body acted upon another in tenuous, sometimes intimate, ways. What was the threshold for nervous response? What happens when touch is soft? What new kind of body were my participants helping to configure, and how did that change their relationship to their own bodies, their own scars?

Through this process of connection/disconnection, touch/untouch, my scars became something new to me and to my participants. Instead of the site of trauma, ugliness, disgust, and pain, instead of something that misfits, my body produced something quite beautiful. Different interactions with it produced more or less pronounced inscriptions, fewer or more plentiful intersections of Perlin lines, and changes in the code could even allow my body to produce multicolored inscriptions – rainbows that moved around and within one another. The relationship between my self and my flesh shifted from one of deficit to one of difference; every touch was a new arrangement, a new relationship with my body, my participants, and my history.

In addition to the physical intra- and inter-actions of T0UCH1NG N01SE, the added element of audio produced even further configurations of my body as a connected/disconnected assemblage. My online presence largely consisted of work that involved representations of a back, a spine, or some trauma related to the marking of a body. So much of my experience as a young person, a history readily available in this online corpus, was caught up in the line between connection and disconnection – connecting with bodies and things, which I could not do, and connecting with abstractions and ideas, which I could do and so did wholeheartedly. These traces of a fractured digital identity arrange in performance with a fractured nervous system and produce a new reality in which bodies and technologies can actually affirm one another and perhaps find a love of one another in that place.

The code shapes me, calling into being a body of tissue, paint, dot formulation, and visualization. T0UCH1NG N01SE is an experience of fracture, where my past selves push against a present-tense self in a search for something connective. Let us define how the traces that we leave – what shows up in a Google search or the mountainous scars on and in our bodies – are configurations of us, of the ways in which we interact, intra-act, connect, and disconnect. Let us define how an internal psyche pushes against an external world, and then something pushes back that is called desire.


[1] Bare Conductive was originally developed as a prototype for conductive body paint (bareconductive1, 2010). However, the company does not support any projects that use the product for that purpose. In response to this absence/erasure, I will be hosting T0UCH1NG N01SE’s code on my github account for public use.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.

Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28, 801-831.

[bareconductive1]. (2010, Sep 15). Bare Conductive for Innovate10. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ddYM-44RLc

Braidotti, R. (2004). Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab. (2014). Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics. Enculturation. Retrieved from http://www.enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here

Garland-Thomson, R. (2011). Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept. Hypatia, 26(3), 591-609.

Grosz, E. A. (1994). Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Haraway, D. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (127-148). New York, NY: Routeldge.

Krystin Gollihue is a PhD Candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media program at NC State University. Her research explores feminist approaches to critical making that account for the deeply historical and multimodal ways women have created communities of work, literacy, and communication. She is a knitter, coder, and poet. Follow her at phenomenoem.com