The COVID-19 pandemic has included mass social movements towards a mutually responsible separation from one another. Its bioethics consider each of us as a potentially vulnerable or dangerous vector. This is not wrong, but the wrong lessons could be learned from it. The epidemiological model of society shows us not as singular and discreet beings, but rather as part of a bubbling plurality. (In contrast, many digital platforms only represent society as singular and discrete beings, then linked by secondary networks.) Looking towards a post-pandemic politics, the problem of over-individuation within the systems that we use to model ourselves is aggravated by physical isolation each of us experiences prolonged rhythms of confinement. The situation brought new cultural and interpersonal realities, many of which are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, such as the tense choreography of social distancing and the vocabularies of without touching.
How, when everyone is forbidden to touch, can a renewed sense of our biopolitical entanglement emerge? This may come from the recognition that societal care is not just a personal, face-to-face, skin-to-skin experience, but something that also happens at a distance, through impersonal systems that each of us rely on. . They are also social relationships. Technological mediation between us is a principle, not a secondary complication. The solidarities that unite us cannot be reduced to direct experience; they are also found in the way we build systems for those we never meet. In this way, too, sensation and sensitivity are aligned.
There is therefore a link between the over-individuation of societal modeling and the insistence on the fact that direct and “unmediated” touch is not only preferable to engagement at a distance, but that it is authentic from a distance. way that mediated social relations can never be. It is not only a misunderstanding of what touch is, it is also a suppression of the sociality of the relationships we all have with each other as part of a common biological and technological world. It is a belief that distracts attention from mutual entanglement in the name of privatized communication experiences.
The problem then is not exactly the prioritization of privacy over distance, but rather the disqualification of remote privacy that societal health care demands. It leads to negative mistrust of the models themselves, on the grounds that their abstractions cannot represent the only things which are supposed to really matter, which are phenomenological and not epidemiological. It is not only a question of anti-intellectualism by the hyperinflation of aesthetics; it is a specific and costly form of resistance to the implications of a biotechnical reality. Therefore, with respect to the sensory layer more generally, positive biopolitics must crush the dichotomization of interpersonal and infrastructural modes of detection. Rather, we should see them as mutually reinforcing.
Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe and I come to different but not necessarily insoluble conclusions about how the planetary calculation supports the project of reason and a viable planetarity. However, on what makes the experiential privatization of subjectivity deeply problematic for this project, we clearly agree when he writes:
What is striking … is the apparent shift from a politics of reason to a politics of experience … In the eyes of many, personal experience has become the new way of being at home in the world. It’s like the bubble that keeps the foam at bay. Today’s experience trumps reason… We are led to believe that sensitivity, emotions, affect, feelings and feelings are all the real substance of subjectivity, and therefore, of agency. radical. Paradoxically, in the paranoid tenor of our time, this is quite in tune with the prevailing constraints of neoliberal individualism.
I would extend this by saying that a privatized subjectivity and the hyper-internalized individuation that results from it depend on a commitment to the authenticity and efficacy of affect. This encompasses the idea that a privileged personal narrativization of the world can, and in fact should, take precedence over the cold reality of the planet and its indifferent biochemistry. It is “culture” in the “war of cultures”. This is not just part of the psychology of the pandemic, it characterizes the rise of populism which, now in power, has so fatally mismanaged responses to the pandemic.
Jean-Luc Nancy, commenting on “touch and the absence of contact”, describes how all touch is ultimately and ultimately without contact, that the absence of contact is the basis of our intimacies. As we watch a grid of hundreds of viewers in video conferencing, where voices and images of faces to touch all our ears and eyes it reminds us of how even the most intimate encounters are mediated by images and sounds, machines, bodily fluids, membranes and prescribed behaviors. Knowing what can and cannot be touched is a form of social intelligence embodied. Bans on certain touching, such as the taboo “touching death” against getting your hands on the corpse of a deceased loved one, for example, have their own obvious “biopolitical” logic in that they prioritize prevention. of disease transmission. on the personal expression of grief. Its most emphatic point is that we touch and are touched constantly, and therefore mediation is not a secondary condition of our incarnation, it is the condition of our incarnation.
Instead of thinking of touch as what is I ammediation – without mediation – rather we understand that although one experience may have more visceral tactility than another, that touch is still to some extent remote touch, and across a distance that is not empty but full of mediation. The importance of this for the context of the pandemic is to situate the provision of medical care within the larger and non-contiguous social detection apparatus. That is, the sensory layer is the way the larger social body, in essence, touches and feels so that another demanding type of touch, which is this provision of medical care, can be provided.
The models produced by the social sense allow a general calibration of touch and the absence of touch as a matter of intimacy, but of intimacy in the form of a biopolitical self-composition. For example, among the most intimate technologies of the absence of contact is the mask. It is not just an intervention on the individual body, but a collaborative technology which, through filtration, mediates the proxemic relationship between two or more of us. Because we are always touched by each other’s exhalations, the mask makes the interrelationship a matter of shared concern. It prevents contact by deliberately removing the space between us, and it is precisely for this reason that we take care of each other. In other words, the mask works not because we care – because filtration is indifferent to emotional ethics – but rather because it works.
A greater transformation of our cities – another collective technology – is also unfolding under the demands of “no contact” Architects, town planners and interaction designers scramble to reimagine the post-pandemic city. While they do, we’re amazed at the bottom-up interface design that has transformed restaurants, markets, and other public places. To keep them open, they reduced their programmatic operations to immunological interfacial regimes of clean and unclean components, plexiglass perforations, and furniture. hijacked in micro-barricades.
Redesigning these sites to reflect the newly present contagion may be less about removing the issue of touch from the equation than reaffirming he. He reintroduced touch directly and viscerally as a variable that had always been there, but had been forgotten. This context of touching and mediating between body and people in the performance of social gatherings had become invisible in conventions such as handshakes, which today seem inappropriate. If before touch was not seen as something that had to be so deliberately calibrated, it is no longer the case. the to touch of these contactless encounters is now something we’re excruciatingly aware of, so we make up the skins and borders of the world with understandings we thought were lost.
This text is an excerpt from Benjamin H. Bratton, Revenge of reality: politics for a post-pandemic world (Verso, 2021).
Positions is an independent initiative of e-flux Architecture.