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The Coda returns to the example with which the book begins: the story about the gentleman caller and the naked lady in the bathroom told by the character Fabienne in Truffaut’s film Stolen Kisses (1968). The aim of the Coda is to revisit key aspects of the theory and history of tact developed in the course of the book, and to draw its findings to a close.
Chapter 1 reconstructs the conceptual history of tact as a social, ethical, and aesthetic category. Starting out with Voltaire’s 1769 definition that marks tact’s fundamental paradigm shift from a sense of feeling to a form of sociability, I reconstruct the word’s ensuing career as a key concept in 19th- and 20th-century pedagogical, philosophical, and literary discourse. I discuss tact’s history within the context of the demise of the ancien régime and the rise of the bourgeois subject, reflecting on a variety of different historical and philosophical explanations (Elias, Adorno, Foucault). I reconstruct how and why, around 1800, tact turns into a key philosophical term, depicting an intuitive form of empirical judgement (Kant). I show how, in the second half of the 19th century, tact, understood as an individual deviation from normative structures, came to occupy a key position in the method dispute between the humanities and the natural sciences (Helmholtz). I conclude by reflecting on how psychological tact went on to become a key category in modern and contemporary hermeneutics, uniting the otherwise antagonistic work of scholars incl. Adorno, Gadamer, Barthes, Felski, and Macé.
Existing theories of human interaction tend to focus on tact as a marker of social distinction (Sartre, Bourdieu), and a tool for the cementation of bourgeois power (Foucault). The introduction sets the arena for a new account of tact that not only considers tact’s discriminating effects but also, and primarily, gives room to its equalizing dynamic and democratic potential. Using a story from Truffaut’s film Stolen Kisses (1968) about a gentleman and a naked lady in a bathroom as an example to unpack some of the key aspects of tact, I engage in critical dialogue with a wide range of scholars from different disciplines (including Wollheim, Kohut, Coplan, Luhmann, Derrida, Goffman, Žižek, Sartre, and Sennett). The aim is to address the following questions: What is tact? What is the relation between empathy, widely associated with proximity, and tact as a generator of distance? How can we distinguish tact from politeness and what are the implications of this distinction? How does social tact, as the spontaneous and individual art of mitigating social encounter, relate to hermeneutical tact as a particular mode of reading faces, images, texts?
Chapter 2 looks at Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu in the context of the Belle Époque as an age characterised by the disintegration of existing hierarchies, norms, and conventions. I start out by considering the novel’s long-lost earliest drafts, Les Soixante-quinze feuillets, to then focus on close readings of a series of encounters between Marcel, Charlus, Albertine, and Andrée. Tact, Proust’s novel suggests, can be interpreted as an egalitarian force, indicating an equilibrium between the people involved. At the same time, it can also be seen as a creator of power imbalance, and a marker of social distinction. This conflict gives rise to a number of questions: Is tact a moral or an amoral category? Where do we draw the line between tact, hypocrisy, and lying? How do we deal with the uncertainty of interpretation as it begins to turn into one of the narrator’s most tantalizing concerns? Drawing on a variety of different theorists of tact (incl. Kant, Schopenhauer, Simmel, Sartre, Gadamer, Hall, Bourdieu, Goffman, Luhmann), I describe Proust’s tact as a paradoxical category that oscillates between autonomy and control, classification and declassification.
Chapter 4 reads Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) in the light of the historical crisis from which it arose. Mapping the film against selected material from earlier versions of the script, director’s notes, letters, and interviews, I interpret Stolen Kisses against the grain of its conventional reception as a romantic comedy. I show how, while sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, the film occupied a bystander position in relation to the political parties involved in the conflict. Against ideologies of fusional collectivity, Truffaut experiments with new forms of individuality, freedom, and communication. In striking resemblance to Plessner’s theory of tact, he shows how tactful behaviour can facilitate ways to come close to one another without meeting, and drift apart again without damaging one another through indifference. Counter to the widespread expectation that when relations are close, they are warm, and when they are warm, they are beneficial to all individuals involved, intimacies do not necessarily bring us closer together. On the contrary, inasmuch as they may infringe upon the singularity and dignity of the individual, they can have a deeply alienating effect.
Chapter 3 looks at Plessner’s Limits of Community (1924) and Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951) to show that, despite their conflicting theoretical assumptions, both thinkers arrive at surprisingly similar conclusions. Both fundamentally disagree on various key concepts that shape their theories of tact: alienation, for example, is for Adorno a temporary state of human existence that we need to overcome. For Plessner, by contrast, it is what makes us human in the first place, setting us apart from animals and plants. And yet, both share a suspicion of certain forms of intimacy and touch, and a preference for individual difference over communal identification. In my close analysis of their writing, I argue that Plessner’s and Adorno’s theories of tact contribute to an ethic of indirectness that defies any strategies of incorporation. On a hermeneutic level, they allow us to develop new modes of non-violent contemplation. On a social level, they find their literal realisation in times of a pandemic, when keeping your distance and wearing a mask can be interpreted as a dystopic sign of isolation, while it can also be seen as an expression of cooperation (not fusion), solicitude, and care.
Chapter 5 engages with Barthes’s tact by situating it within a philosophical landscape that expands from the West (Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche) to the East (Kakuzō, Suzuki). In so doing, I reconstruct how Barthes explores the connection between human sociability and intellectual productivity in view of its hermeneutic potential. I show that Barthes’s alternative practice of critical inquiry bears striking resemblance to Adorno’s idea of hermeneutical tact. I argue that Barthes’s notion of tact, although unfashionable in the 1970s, is crucial to ongoing debates that challenge the hermeneutic of suspicion (Gadamer, Ricœur) and transgress the limits of critique (Felski). I also question, however, if the essentially democratic idea of a tactful hermeneutics first introduced by Kant truly translates into Barthes’s, Adorno’s and Gadamer’s theories. Tact, they jointly contend, cannot be taught. Unlike politeness, it must be lived. The elitism this idea implies, and its implicit vicinity to the Romantic idea of the genius, give rise to the suspicion that, while aiming to suspend any class-oriented conceptions of tact, in the end, this may be precisely what their theories help to reproduce.
Times of crisis expose how we experience social, physical, and emotional forms of distance. Alone with Others explores how these experiences overlap, shaping our coexistence. Departing from conventional debates that associate intimacy with affection and distance with alienation, Haustein introduces tact as a particular mode of feeling one's way and making space in the sphere of human interaction. Reconstructing tact's conceptual history from the late eighteenth century to the present, she then focuses on three specific periods of socio-political upheaval: the two World Wars, and 1968. In five reading encounters with Marcel Proust, Helmuth Plessner, Theodor Adorno, François Truffaut, and Roland Barthes, Haustein invites us to reconsider our own ways of engaging with other people, images, and texts, and to gauge the significance of tact today. This title is part of the Flip it Open Programme and may also be available Open Access. Check our website Cambridge Core for details.
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