Zurich, Switzerland. March-April 2020.
In recent weeks, one practice in particular became (in)famous in slowing down the Covid-19 pandemic: social distancing. For those privileged to do so, social distancing resulted in a displacement of sociality onto telecommunication tools. However, the strategy of „distancing“ first and foremost meant physical separation and disciplining of bodies without necessarily separating persons. Bodies and their breathing spaces (breathing households according to Peter Sloterdijk) should be prevented from corporeally, miasmatically intermingling with others in order to avoid contagion. Bodies were now allowed to be present only as segmented into bits and bytes and pressed through the internet in order to be reconstructed in front of their communication partner – but safely framed as a two-dimensional image on the screen, „behind the glass“.
This text, however, is concerned what happens with the corporeal matter itself – the matter, it seems, that in telecommunication only serves as a prototype for its infinite reproduction in virtual avatars. Even if these technology-generated avatars seem to improperly re-write movements and expressions, as they sometimes lag and distort facial features and voices, they are still feeding on the physical body. It matters how my body in front of the webcam behaves, as it is the source of the information registered and transmitted. The instant recording – no matter what happens with the information afterwards – casts a new light on every little movement and gesture, magnifies it and gives it potential new meaning. The surveillance of physical features increases. The awareness of the other‛s bodily movements reflect back on the awareness of my own body. Even tough I am in our „casual“ environment at home, I feel my body must be disciplined, watched over, prepared for its multiplication.
Physical disciplining I: telecommunication space
How do I pose my body in the frame to be transmitted? Where is my body cut in two, where do I locate the border of virtual in/visibility? What other objects are there to be seen, how do I arrange them? How do my potentially watched body parts act in comparison with the virtually invisible ones? Do the others watch me right now, or is their gaze focused on someone else‛s face? Do I always remember I could be watched? Am I prepared with a postcard smile in case the connection drags and my image will be frozen? Does the transmission of my live image really stop if I turn off my camera? Ain‛t I „there“ in some way or other all the time, anyway?
In a way, when working in home office, the public is invited to my home. My home, the spaces I could feel unwatched even if not alone, suddenly become unsafe, suspicious. Maybe now I‛m more present to the world when I‛m sitting in front of my computer than when I‛m outside, hanging out in the garden and watching people jogging by the riverside? The feeling of the proprietary character of a home dissolutes, control over spaces is lost as they are increasingly shared beyond my comprehension and invaded non-physically by others.
April 10, 2020, 12.18 pm. Picture taken by my mobile phone without my consent.
Physical disciplining II: public space
Remain at a distance of two meters from the next person. Do not gather in groups larger than three. Look away when crossing paths with someone – do not breathe in. Do not touch, kiss, hug. Do not shake hands. Do not touch your own face. Do not touch any surfaces. Or: use disposables as a dis/connector between you and the rest of the world. Use plastic bags – wait, why do they still exist? – to grab your shopping chart safely.
The dissolution of a „private“ space results in an increasing surveillance of my body – and others. Scripts for bodily behaviour and performance are nothing new, as every etiquette manual will confirm. But now, newly designed or intensified „etiquettes“ need to be incorporated in no time, especially when moving about outside. For the bodily behaviour in the outside world, there were created prescriptions to be followed, instructions that were to be made into corporeal scripts as fast as possible: the body should learn to do the work imposed on it, perform the script given to it. The working on the threshold of conscious acting out and subconscious body performance makes all the more aware of my body itself. Bodiness (corporeality) in the interaction with others gains relevance – a relevance that I sometimes neglected before, disregarding the body as the main matter of communication. Bodies now loom big, as moving bulks of non-certainty. Flocking about them are their proper breathing spaces – breathing spaces easily perceived as bubbles of miasma, eager to contaminate whatever object is coming too close.
Stay away from me. My circle of two meters is not to be perturbed. If it is, it is my choice to stay and be hardy (take the risk) or to step out and create the interval I need between bodies. Are you unaware that in walking past me in the street, you almost brush my sleeve? Are you that intent on getting the last package of toilet paper that you overlook me standing nearby (distance: 0.6m)? You are threatening yourself and me. Do you care? Do I care? How does our mutual (non)care reflect back on our movements, our pushing and pulling of other bodies?
The relational moving about of bodies is a dance of leading and following (Erin Manning). There are intervals between the bodies and between the movements, an „ephemeral, impossible to grasp as such“ in-between. However, considering the measures against the spread of Covid-19 as experienced on the way to or in the grocery store in my Zurich district, we might speak here of an interval filled with anxiety. Anxiety, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, is fear that no longer finds its object; the object has become invisible, and so I fill the interval between me and you with imageries of viruses scurrying about. It is an interval like an „a-personal force field“ (André Lepecki) that consists of a very negation of the human health and life and is yet entangled with it in a way that it constantly accompanies living beings. „When our bodies begin to fold around the interval, we know we are creating a dance. Relational movement is always improvisational.“ (Manning) There are micro-uncertainties in every interaction with others. These are not eliminated by the instructions given to our bodies, but magnified. More than before, the commuting of my body across specks of other corporealities results in actions and counter actions reminding of micro-aggressions and their fending off. The „dance“ has been intensified and its choreographisation been unveiled: while the scripts are theoretically binding for all, moving around in public has become a game of determination, intentionality, and hardiness, as well as of hierarchies of vulnerabilities and care.
Ignoring the body script for public spaces may come unintended: I might plainly forget the state of emergency when skipping around in a store with dinner on my mind. The time of emergency has not yet managed to imprint itself deeply enough on my body for it to move and react according to the scripts it was instructed to follow without being actively willed. But that doesn‛t mean other persons are in the same state just at the moment. Maybe others interpret a coming too close as an aggression, an intrusion upon their integrity. The bodily carelessness of one person becomes the urgency of another person to react bodily, to re-position their body in relation to the other.
The dance of Covid-19 is a dance of awareness that now invites everybody almost democratically. But even this democracy of the virus is an illusion, as we can perceive it in the definition of so-called high risk groups like elderly people. It is also an illusion because the care about it is not distributed evenly: it is always the person intent on keeping physical distance that has to react and adapt their own behaviour.
This brings to my mind the fact that also without any urgent threat of viral contagion, public spaces are not distributed and acted upon evenly. Just like a person can decide to take the risk of a contagion with Covid-19 because of a potentially intact immune system, can go out and come into the vicinities of other corporealities, a person ranked high in corporeal normality might feel the same in everyday life: there is no problem at all. A person of a old, frail body however, of a body nonconforming to gender stereotypes, of a body potentially attracting harassment, is always confronted with the decision whether to take the risk and to come close to others, crossing the borders of others‛ physical or verbal range. The networks of solidarity and awareness for others that sprung up lately might well continue into a life without the threat of Covid-19. The strategy of „social distancing“ has dispossessed the public space or outside world for many: space is no longer at your disposal, but must be shared with others in mutual care for the integrity of the selves. It has sharpened our senses for others, to consider our material environment and corporeal interaction.
In meeting another person „in body“, I need to adapt common, incorporated scripts of behaviour, of interaction. Scripts need to be scripted over. What could a hand mean, if it is not to be shaken? My body outwits me, reacting intuitively to signals it has received before. This results in awkward situations: a halfway raised hand produces another halfway raised hand, hovering in the air uselessly. Bodies, persons are disoriented, make mistakes.
You meet a friend. You see her coming close. What do you see, what do you think? Check them out for signs of symptoms, a strange behaviour, a certain look, comparing them to how they were before the lockdown? But then: Do you REALLY consider all those healthy-looking, well-dressed people hanging around in the non-home world to be carriers of the virus?
You don‛t intend to consider the other person as a carrier. Still, there are the measures, the „distancing“. You see her approaching, and you will still have to deal with HER approach: to the scripts, to you. Is she maybe super careful, and you will offend her by taking a step forward? Or will she intrude over your borders, invisible but relevant for you and your conscience. How can you prevent her from touching you while trying not to be rude? How do you greet?
„Hashtag Seifi-Bosch“. Prevention campaign by Basel City
MY BODY IS MY CASTLE?
The practice of „social distancing“ or physical disciplining immobilises my body‘s own movements. The rules of distance and proximity, of touching and its consequences, are translated as explicit scripts for corporeal behaviour. Hence, all of my body‛s movements have to be supervised, registered, controlled and stopped or, if it‘s too late, have to be mitigated with according counter-movements. This implies an unfailing awareness of my corporeality at all times, at least in spaces shared physically with others.
Where is my body, what does it do? My body starts to become something that seems to have its own will; I realise that it has its ways to deal with situations, offers reactions I was not aware of and that didn‘t even come to my mind. Does my body work in accordance with me or against me, against others? Why doesn‘t it do what I told it to? How is it even related to me, if it can be disobedient? How do I control it?
The feeling of insecurity due to the shifts of behavioural scripts translates back into a feeling of loss of control over corporeal situations. My body suddenly seems to be at a distance, seems to sometimes even act against my own will. As the corporeal tool of which I make use, my body at the same time threatens me through its material reality, its touchiness, its vulnerability. The realisation of this interdependence of corporeality and self could lead to a greater integration; however, the step forward to a strategy of splitting and disciplining seems easier. It is a form of technology of the self (Michel Foucault) where the point is not to examine and know the self as one, but as a relation of self and its corporeality, as a dualism of mutual domination.
Stay at home, confine yourself. Immobilise your body. Yet the body takes its toll on you as well: caged in our homes, shackled to our home offices and home schooling, your body‛s (your) need for fresh air and movement renders the situation even more unbearable. Let your body ache for movement, freedom, carelessness, and you will ache with it. Perceive, how lack of movement erodes its agility, how it meanders through your stiffened muscles, how it sediments in unexpected body parts. And then: monitor your body‛s twitches – a rather low energy level here, an uncommonly high body temperature there? Is that a cough or did you just choke on some air? You will now notice every little ailment; best note it down for better orientation and control.
Covid-19 potentiates the measures taken by newest technologies in order to supervise ourselves. The pandemic threat transplants these measures – or better, the need for measures – directly into our heads, if they had not been on our mind already. Just like a smart watch, you might start to monitor the body‛s every fit. While modern body supervision technologies notify in case something extraordinary happens, the new challenge is for me to notice corporeal modulations unmediated by technology.
The awareness of the body‛s frailties is something that was of interest mainly to health insurances up until lately. Talking about our neighbours jogging by: the relation of selves to bodies was and is framed as a goal to be achieved in terms of shape and fitness. You could always, ever, start to strengthen, toughen, vitalise your body. The body‛s image was the one that should be achieved according to the wellness and well-being industry. A „perfect“ body free of ailments. Now however, we are forced to also consider possible signals of weakness and disease. Of course, the techniques of physical improvement still take effect, but they are now more than ever designed as urgent countermeasures. They have achieved a state of emergency, are reframed as measures in order to now stay physically and mentally healthy. They allow for no postponement or laxity in view of the viral anxiety. In engaging my corporeal matter, I find a way to flee forward. I need my corporeality to survive.