The Age of Distance: On an Ancient Hand Gesture

In: Research in Phenomenology
Claudia Baracchi Associate Professor, Department of Human Sciences, Università di Milano-Bicocca Milan Italy

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In light of the mandate of social distancing imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent disruption in habitual practices involving physical contact, the essay explores the ancient gesture of the handshake with reference to both its cultural codifications and its iconography, widespread especially in Mediterranean and Near Eastern areas. While involving manifold semantic and symbolic significance, the handshake is taken into account especially as a gesture implying a tactile exposure to another, hinting at the possibility of joining radically discontinuous worlds (mortals and immortals, dead and living). Ancient Greek funerary art is considered and a few final remarks return to the experience of isolation we lived on a global scale in recent years.


In light of the mandate of social distancing imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent disruption in habitual practices involving physical contact, the essay explores the ancient gesture of the handshake with reference to both its cultural codifications and its iconography, widespread especially in Mediterranean and Near Eastern areas. While involving manifold semantic and symbolic significance, the handshake is taken into account especially as a gesture implying a tactile exposure to another, hinting at the possibility of joining radically discontinuous worlds (mortals and immortals, dead and living). Ancient Greek funerary art is considered and a few final remarks return to the experience of isolation we lived on a global scale in recent years.


At the beginning of the third decade of the third millennium, suddenly and unexpectedly the shape of quotidian life was altogether reconfigured. Albeit with remarkable variations in different regions of the world, the impact of the pandemic was felt globally and left nothing unchanged. As the emergency dictated isolation and distancing, social life underwent a new kind of fragmentation and sentient bodies came to experience hyperbolic levels of insularity, alienation, manifold deprivation. In short – a solitary process of abstraction.

In the repertoire of minute everyday habits, a gesture went missing, dispersed in the gaping space between bodies: the handshake. Only an evanescent, suspended trace of it would still linger on. Upon encountering each other, we no longer shook hands, no longer held the other’s hand. We would still meet outside, although more rarely – some of us for work-related purposes (some activities could not be converted into distance working), some on hasty outings from the den for food and necessities. The movement of the hand would still reach out toward the other, as if of its own accord, faithful to a long-standing habit. However, the impulse would stop midair, hesitate, blocked by the onset of a novel awareness advising against bodily contact. Then the greeting would be conveyed by a distant sign, a smile perhaps, in the mode of physical withdrawal.


Shaking hands is often the first entrance into the sphere of another body, into that invisible but pulsating shell that surrounds it, at times slightly more transparent, suffused with a dim luminescence. It has become a formal gesture (somewhat solemn, never casual, neither indifferent nor disrespectful), the one of diplomacy, summit meetings and alliances, business agreements and deals, of the given word, of liturgy. Nevertheless it retains its ancient simplicity intact. Of course, it does not belong in the order of instinctive automatism, but rather in that of language. Many cultures do not involve touching each other when meeting. Mutual acknowledgment and salutation may be codified as a bow, for example, or as folded hands, or as the right hand on the chest, a movement of the garments, a simple nod. But for us, from the Mediterranean and throughout the West, the handshake is a ubiquitous gesture, stratified both in its aesthetic variations and semantics. The idiomatic “handshake,” in English, suggests a vigorous, almost electrifying exchange, or even a demonstration of strength; but hands may also be squeezed, clasped, grasped, and so on, in varying modes of tactility and degrees of intensity – as is conveyed by the French locutions poignée de main and serrer la main, the Italian stretta di mano, or the German Händedruck, for instance.

Children look for the reassuring hand of an adult to guide and guard them. Again, friends and lovers hold hands. They hold each other’s hand when facing challenges, to convey closeness, affirmation, and encouragement. But it is in its ordinary greeting function that the handshake reveals surprising aspects, especially in the greeting between strangers who introduce themselves (or are introduced) to each other for the first time. For introduction inaugurates the possibility of knowing each other, hence of recognizing each other from this point on. Once this threshold is crossed, one is no longer simply unknown, the adventures of acquaintances begin. The foreign, the strange, become customary. Being introduced to the other, as the English idiom goes, one is at once introduced into the other.

This is why the handshake marks a passage fraught with dangers, an exposure to uncontrollable variables. Without knowing each other, we give our hand to the other, grabbing theirs. Simultaneously offering and receiving, expressing and acknowledging, we connect for a moment. This quantum leap is a choreography of trust. The hand venturing forth to hold another hand is unarmed: naked, it can wield no weapon. Thus, the words accompanying the new encounter (“it is a pleasure”) may evoke a propitiatory ritual, calling for the metamorphosis of the stranger into a welcome, amicable presence, just as declaring oneself “enchanted” (as one does in some languages) reveals that we entered the sphere of influence exerted by the other and are under their spell.

Or maybe we do not say anything, just look at each other. We always, necessarily, look at each other in shaking hands. Watchful, even with apprehension. In the exquisitely heightened sensitivity of the palm of the hand and the fingertips. Skin against skin – dry, soft, thin, thick, at what temperature, how firm or timid the hold, how forthcoming or reticent the thrust. In unmediated contiguity (or through a mediation imperceptible to us, as Aristotle at one point observes)1 – touching always, at the same time, is being touched: con-tact.


Touch, haphe, is the most primordial of the senses, Aristotle says, common to all animated beings and the necessary condition for all the other senses.2 He also underlines the extreme subtlety and precision of the sense of touch in the human compared to other animals, which would account for the excellence of human intelligence (on the contrary, with respect to the other senses the human animal is surpassed by many others).3 Yet, concomitantly with such a prestige attributed to touch, Aristotle repeatedly underscores its obscurity and aporetic character. It is as if, precisely as he draws closer to the unique and distinctive questions surrounding touch, touch would withdraw into latency, become elusive, nocturnal. Touching, as always immediately being touched, bespeaks a receptivity absolutely anterior to the opening up of any distance, prior even to the originary movement of spacing. Before any disclosure, distancing, or space of mediation (that is, before any hospitality, invitation, or intentional availability), touch indicates an absolute, primordial contact (that is, radical intimacy and unspeakable vulnerability).4

It seems, however, that according to Aristotle the distinction between the senses of touch and its modification (taste), on the one hand, and those of sight and hearing, on the other hand, may not rest on a simple contrast between immediacy and mediation. All sensation would occur through a medium, even when not acting from a distance, and even though the medium involved in perception without distance escapes our notice, tending to remain vastly unconscious (lanthanei).5 The difference between the latter case (touch, taste) and the senses acting from a distance (hearing, sight) is subtle, to the point of fading. It is a difference internal to mediation. In touching, to be sure, we do not perceive through an environmental mediation (the luminosity that makes visible, the transparency of air or water that, moving in waves, conveys sound to the ear), however, at the same time, in the utmost proximity to the object touched, we perceive the mediation along with the object.6 Which means that, in touch, the medium (which in other perceptual modes remains evasive, for we do not see the light itself but what it illumines, nor do we hear the air but the movement propagating through it) becomes perceptible. In touching I simultaneously perceive the other I am touching and that through whose mediation I am touching. But that through whose mediation I am perceiving is nothing external, I myself am it: the depth of my skin, my flesh (the medium is internal, entos, says Aristotle).7 Thus, the medium, that through which sense perception occurs, is itself sensible: in sensing (touching) I sense myself sensed (touched). In touch, perception and self-perception are not two separate moments, but indeed indissolubly intertwined. And here we touch upon the Aristotelian intuition of noetic perception (even and precisely in its reflexivity as thought thinking itself) as a matter of touch.8 Although, of course, this dynamic is bound to remain dimly lit, if at all, and deeply enigmatic – for the medium is after all said to persist in latency, uncaught. At once perceived and fugitive.9

It must be noted, moreover, that notwithstanding his unabated commitment to a most elegant and discerning analysis of the sensory modes, and although polemical against reductive treatments of all sensations in terms of touch,10 Aristotle understands the basic sense of touch as presupposed and somehow implicated in all the other ways of sensing, as if the latter were but variations on one theme, developments out of a common ground. As we said, the other senses (notably hearing and sight) do not involve a naked, direct contact with the sensed, but rather exert perception in the open distance, as if receiving what the medium transmits and, simultaneously, crossing the medium so as to reach out to that which is far removed. And yet, even in this evident mediation, touch is still at the heart of the perceptual occurrence. The sensory organ touches and is touched by the intermediate body, be it air, water, or some manner of luminous transparency. Just as taste is contact with the nourishment in our mouth, and smell contact with the odorous medium in the nostrils, so hearing is contact with the air moved by sound waves, and sight is contact with the light lighting up the visible.

In the Timaeus, Plato vividly renders sight as a version of touch and elucidates vision thus: the inner light of the eye comes out and encounters the light of the world, a gentle fire akin to itself. Sight would occur when the body of light, joining together the inner eye and the light-infused outside, touches and is touched by things. In this contact, the world lights up and we see.11

Not only, then, is touch the perceptual mode shared by all living and sentient beings. At the heart of sensation touch would persist, in varied transpositions, involving the reciprocal affection of bodies touching each other, the simultaneity of activity and passivity, perception and self-perception, searching and receptivity. In turn, the world would not simply be received but also receptive, and would respond by emerging and presenting itself in ever changing shapes, as this world, each time relationally and anew.

In handshaking, then, the hand offers itself and surrenders to the other. Hands (creative, capable of powerful gestures, free because freed by the upright posture) give themselves, let themselves be touched, sensed, clasped, without doing anything else than touching, sensing, clasping in turn. And, along with the hands, the accompaniment of the gaze. So that, in the encounter sealed by the handshake, is synthesized the full range of the perceptive channels that variously connect us to the world and open us up to it, beyond ourselves, from the closest contact to the most remote regions of the cosmos.

It has been stated that sight, especially when looking closely, resembles touch, the tactile experience of matter in its granularity; and that this aesthetic “model” would disclose a tactile, “haptic” rather than optic, space.12 Yet, it appears that in Greek thought sight has a tactile character independently of shorter or longer distances. As a most agile perceptive openness, sight touches (and is touched by) the distant to the point of making it not only contiguous, but even interior. Sight touches distance itself, ventures out across it, permeates it, making it its own, even losing itself in it. Which allows for the experience of a direct contact with the starry sky – so direct despite the remoteness, indeed, as to be simultaneously a matter of recognition and specular reflection. I am that, all the way out there, outside myself. And, at once, I harbor the outside within me. From Plato13 to Kant,14 this is what is at stake.


The earliest extant iconography of the handshake dates back to almost 3,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. One of the most notable examples is a relief depicting the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (to the right) and a Babylonian, probably Marduk-zakir-shumi (Iraq Museum, Baghdad) [fig. 1]. However, this was a customary act in the Greek world and the near East, consistently practiced from archaic times onwards and variously mentioned in the Homeric cycles.15 The Greeks named this manner of greeting dexiosis, that is, giving the right one – offering the right hand (typically the most skilled and astute, insidious and fearsome), yielding it as an hostage. It is an egalitarian gesture, and precisely for this reason in ancient times it was used to display harmony between two and equal dignity, even between individuals who were incommensurable in terms of stature or nature, for example mortals and immortals or godlike heroes – as in the magnificent reliefs at Arsameia on the Nymphaios, in the ancient kingdom of Commagene, depicting a mortal ruler, probably Antiochus I, shaking hands with various deities, named according to Greco-Iranian concordances customary in late antiquity (here, Antiochus I stands with Heracles-Ares-Artagnes) [fig. 2].16 Humans and gods together. As if in order to bridge an insuperable hiatus, to connect radically discontinuous worlds.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Shalmaneser III shaking hands with Marduk-zakir-shumi (detail), IX c. BCE

Citation: Research in Phenomenology 52, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15691640-12341499

Iraq Museum (Baghdad) (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 2
Figure 2

King Antiochus I shaking hands with Heracles, I c. BCE

Citation: Research in Phenomenology 52, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15691640-12341499

Arsameia (Eastern Anatolia) (Wikimedia Commons)

So much so that in the Greek world, especially in Attica, the handshake became a hieroglyph of the parting between the living and the dead.17 A vast repertoire of vase paintings and bas reliefs on funerary steles depicts in this way the last contact between the departed and those who remain. These are scenes of considerable intensity, grave and yet delicate, intimate, often rich with characterizing details, which define each figure in its singularity. The composition almost always involves couples, in the most varied combinations of age, gender, and status. But even when the scene is more crowded, the nearness of the diverse figures is organized around the hands holding each other. The handshake is the pivot, the knot, the navel of the image: lovers tenderly touching each other, aging spouses, parents grieving children, young ones accompanying the elderly, friends and relatives with finely detailed robes and ornaments, military comrades taking leave of one another while the war is still raging and they are still carrying weapons and shields, gazes crossing each other, bowed heads, faces obfuscated by a faint and poignant melancholy. And, always, holding hands [fig. 3].

Figure 3
Figure 3

Funerary stele of Thrasea and Euandria, Attic, IV c. BCE

Citation: Research in Phenomenology 52, 2 (2022) ; 10.1163/15691640-12341499

Pergamon Museum (Berlin) (Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes, especially in lekythoi paintings, arms are extended, stretched, as if hands would still resist letting one another go, thus pulling the limbs, while an invisible, irrevocable force seems already to drag the deceased away. Elsewhere. The handshake shall be loosened forever. Forever will the relationship between mortals (those who stay a little longer and those who must leave) be severed. And, yet in images as well as in the imagination, the company of the living ones and the dead (the companionship and interpenetration of worlds only apparently separate) abides. Their bond is even strengthened: here they are withheld together, side by side, touching, their last salute inscribed in the tenacity of stone or paint. This is a moving, impeccable intuition: the gesture that once inaugurated their relationship, almost the vanguard of their relationship, this same gesture now soothes its end and transforms goodbyes into something other, something enduring.

In the intertwining of unarmed hands, the many senses of relationship are therefore condensed. In this sublunar world, the dexiosis marks the entrance into the relationship and the way out that dissolves it. More broadly, it indicates the steadiness of the relation between this world and the other one, between life and death. A resilient alliance, a mutual pervasiveness. It may not be altogether superfluous to underline the degree to which this perspective confers nourishment, support, and significance on single rapports as well as communal and political bonds; the degree to which it fosters solidarity among generations, connectedness with the other, even the other than human. Not by chance, above we observed that in reaching out towards the other while offering one’s hand, accepting the other’s hand, looking at each other, all the modes of sensorial perception (from touch to sight) are summoned, which weave us into the world, into communion with its beings, from those close by, touched with a hand, all the way to the edge of the sky; from mortals to stars (which are mortal as well, and no more enigmatic than we are).


Here is what is retained in this ordinary gesture. At least if we pause and linger for a moment on its symbolic reverberation. Here is what is gathered in this tender contact with the body, our own and the other’s, which we are now missing. We are now, in our encounters as well as in mourning, empty-handed, untouchable. Among the living, with the dying ones, with the dead – touch is denied. Nor can we enter the spaces of the other’s influence. The habit has been suspended, or at least severely compromised, for long enough to stabilize the distance between us, among us, in various ways. And we are struggling to retrieve that posture again.

At the height of the pandemic propagation, some spoke of a “return of the body,” a return to prominence possibly furthering social change and renewal, fracturing the techno-capitalistic hegemony that sees the body as an incident, a mistake to correct, or material to manipulate. This seemed bitterly amusing, in the midst of a worldwide phenomenon that involved enormous and manifold losses, dramatic death rates, and the centrality of the body basically amounting to the practices of medicalization and subjection to pharmaceutical experimentation.

Unless they meant to say that the body returns as missing. Our body comes back, if it indeed is coming back today, as a phantasm. It comes to mind in the mode of privation and deprivation, inaccessible, and we miss it. This is what is missing, what has been missing in our cloistered shelters, surrounded by screens and displays, among sheets of images untouchable even to sight, in the barren yet necessary congestion of technology, connecting us in remote mode. Everything remotely. Without touching, without hands, without the gaze into an other gaze (in videocall it is not possible to look another in the eye), without even walking the distance together, sharing it. We missed the bodies, unapproachable, without which it is difficult to sense the world, to sense ourselves in the world. Or maybe we did sense it, but in the mode of loss, of anguish. In the pain of negation.

And here, in this enforced estrangement, in the rarefaction of the most immediate and familiar circumstances, perhaps we could, paradoxically, hear the scream of more distant lives echoing as if close to us. In the distance from those who used to be near, we might, if anything, sense that we miss the contact with those who are truly far. We might rekindle this awareness, realize that we are hurt by this severance from that which is far away, by the contraction of our horizons, by the shrinking we have become increasingly accustomed to. Maybe this could occur while watching on a screen the stream of bodies fleeing from a big Indian city because they had no home in which to “stay home,” locked. Or dead bodies, equally without a home, on the streets and under the sunlight, in a village, let us say, in South America. Or the bodies in the Mediterranean, on the surface of the water or on the bottom, and those in waiting, apparently without tomorrow, at the Eastern gates of Europe, coming to seek refuge. Or while hearing of the rule requiring the Philippine police to shoot anyone not observing the lockdown regulation. “Shoot to kill,” their President ordered that spring (it was 2020).

Sensing the world. Much has been said about an authoritarian Plato and about the dangers of biological metaphors in politics. However, when Plato images a community as a body in which, if the finger of a hand is wounded, the body as a whole suffers together with the hand, he means, I believe, something of this kind.18


Aristotle, De anima 423b4–9. But, in apparent contradiction, De an. 422a10.


De an. 413b4–10, 415a4–5.


De an. 421a18–26. Also De sensu 441a2. On Aristotle’s praise of the hand, De partibus animalium 687a6–b3.


De an. 422b17–424a15. On an extensive discussion of these problems, Jacques Derrida, Le toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy (Paris: Galilée, 2000). Furthermore, Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (Paris: Métailié, 2006) and Le sens du monde (Paris: Galilée, 1993).


De an. 423b7 and 8.


De an. 423b12–15.


De an. 423b21–26.


On noetic apprehension (in its reflexive movement) as a matter of touch, Metaphysics 1072b20–21. On this decisive question, Rémi Brague, Aristote et la question du monde. Essai sur le contexte cosmologique et anthropologique de l’ontologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), esp. 259–260, 370–373; Claudia Baracchi, “Aristotele e il nous. Note sulla trascendenza indicibile,” Immanenza e trascendenza in Aristotele, ed. by Luca Grecchi (Pistoia: Petite Plaisance, 2017); Pascal Massie, “Touching, Thinking, Being: The Sense of Touch in Aristotle’s De anima and Its Implications,” Minerva – An Internet Journal of Philosophy 17 (2003).


A purely suggestive juxtaposition: August 22, 1938, Freud’s very last note draws together in a tight sentence obscurity and the self-awareness that exceeds and decenters the ego: “The mystical is the obscure self-perception of the realm outside the ego, of the id” (Mystik die dunkle Selbstwahrnehmung des Reiches ausserhalb des Ichs, des Es) (“Ergebnisse, Ideen, Probleme,” Gesammelte Werke [London: Imago, 1941], vol. 17, 149–52).


On Aristotle’s assessment of the position of Democritus and other natural philosophers, De sensu 441a30–442b3.


Plato, Timaeus 45b–d.


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux. Capitalisme et schizophrénie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1980), Ch. 14 “1440 – Le lisse et le strié”.


Again, in the Timaeus Plato establishes a mirroring relation between the human organism and the cosmic organism in their very structure. The human being was, mutatis mutandis, constructed following the model of the cosmos – which is why in contemplating the starry sky the human being may begin to remember itself, discover in itself concealed potentialities, recognize its own features, and imitatively recapture its psycho-somatic physiognomy if and when life may have had bruising or deforming effects on it (47a–c).


“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and persistently one thinks about them: the starry sky above me and the moral law in me. I must not look for either of them as veiled in obscurity or in the exalted beyond my historical horizon, and merely assume. I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence” (Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788, “Beschluß,” my translation).


Let us recall the paradigmatic instance of the encounter of Diomedes and Glaucus in Iliad VI. The two warriors are dear to one another from a previous time, and their delighted mutual recognition on the battlefield, sealed by their clasping each other’s hand (278–282), momentarily suspends the hostilities. Hanna Roisman, “Pistos Hetairos in the Iliad and the Odyssey,” Acta Classica 26 (1983), 15–22.


Marcel Le Glay, “La dexiosis dans les mystères de Mithra,” Études mithriaques, ed. by J. Duchesne-Guillemin (Téhéran: Bibliothèque Pahlavi, 1978), 279–304.


Lucia Nováková and Monika Pagácová, “Dexiosis: A Meaningful Gesture of the Classical Antiquity,” Iliria International Review 6.1 (2016), 207–222; J. Elsner, “Visual Culture and Ancient History: Issues of Empiricism and Ideology in the Samos Stele at Athens, Classical Antiquity 34.1 (April 2015), 33–73; J. H. Oakley, Picturing Death in Classical Athens: The Evidence of the White Lekytoi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); J. Burnett Grossman, Greek Funerary Sculpture: Catalogue of the Collections at the Getty Villa (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001); E. Pemberton, “The Dexiosis on Attic Gravestones,” Mediterranean Archaeology 2 (1989), 45–50; G. Davies, “The Significance of Handshake Motif in Classical Funerary Art,” AJA 89 (1985), 627–640.


Plato, Republic 462 c–d.

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