In a recent article in Spectrum (3/4/2020), Christos Tsoilkas asks ‘Were So Many of Us Wrong?’, suggesting, among other things, that political discourse in recent years about difference, movement, open borders and the digital is now out of step with the times, dominated as they are by Covid-19 and the emotions and restrictions the virus now foregrounds. In particular Christos notes the weirdness of televisual and digital performance (from football to drag) in the absence of real live humans, and the shocking overabundance of people in dole queues. He misses the real voices of friends and interlocutors in conversation and argument; recognises an embedded need for home; and places ultimate value on community, rather than difference, at least ‘in this moment’. Most of us are surely likely to feel this.
But what does Christos’ qualifier ‘in this moment’ mean? That after the emergency we can revert to our more worldly ways? That it is only in times of crisis that we need be drawn to hearth and home? Or are these reminders of things so basic that we take them utterly for granted, so that we are surprised when they strikingly, if at the same time somewhat dimly, emerge into view? In turn, if these ‘basics’ are the qualities of embodied life and face-to-face relations, how do they at the same time as reminding us of ‘home’, and all it positively connotes about closeness and familiarity, refer us out to a collective, surely anonymous, ‘community’?
One of the ‘givens’ of a great deal of social and cultural theory over the past thirty or forty years has been a rebellion against ‘home’; against anything that suggests givenness or nature in the social realm. Hearth and home, the face to face, certainly the idea of presence, have all been worked over—certainly by digital evangelists, but broadly by theorists of various ilks—as secondary or derivative factors shaped by the content and actions of larger systems of meaning and action.
Feminist theory, for instance, has critiqued hearth and home for the restrictions this familiar setting has embedded in traditional notions of womanhood. A host of other approaches has set hearth and home in motion as a source of ideology—that of authenticity, for instance—and constructive of various essentialisms. Closeness has been held in suspicion as the location of possible ‘tricks’ in consciousness and rationality: feelings generated in proximity to the familiar tend to convince people of the rightness and deepness of their experience and to disallow disinterested examination of received values and meanings. The movement in engaged thinking has been away from the familiar to extended and global influences; from commonality to difference; from solidarity to recognition, from classes to identities, and so forth.
In an effort to release and reshape people from oppressive contexts and social meanings, though, embodied life and face-to-face relations have often been confused as sources of meaning rather than as a form of social relationship that has particular qualities and shapes a particular mode of being that can be compared to other kinds of social relations that produce other kinds of social being. In other words, you can see the face to face and embodied interaction as a form, not as implying specific content. A key concern, then, if this is taken up, is just what does bodily presence, or embodied interaction, do? What does bodily presence allow; along what lines does it shape social relationships? What are the qualities of being present in bodies vis a vis other bodies and faces?
What then hasn’t nearly so much been explored in social theory recently is the distinctive forms of social relationship that might be compared when societies are made up massively through face-to-face relationships as compared to those like ours where another social principle dominates: that of digitally mediated absence; or the digital constitution of new, ‘disembodied’, ways of being and interacting in the world.
These are big topics, with many nuances. But for the moment here, as a short meditation from a social theoretical point of view on Christos’ experiential reflection, I agree that this moment pushes into consciousness questions and feelings that have not been to the forefront in recent radical and progressive thinking. Whole worlds are threatened by the consequences of the virus; both actual and internalised worlds, which give meaning and purpose in our lives; they are fragile in ways we in the West simply haven’t had to consider for a very long time in history, and which people in general don’t have to consider when the meaning frames that necessarily implicitly guide everyday life are securely embedded largely beyond consciousness. Yet the very fact that those issues and questions arise in a period of crisis does mean that they echo a level of the composition of selves and common life that sits deeply within us, and that if needs be we can recover them in thinking to work our way through why they are important.
Being close to another—as in literally close, present in that sense of bodily closeness , ‘communicating’/being face to face (not ‘present’ in the sense of ‘transparent to’)—has been theorised in fabulously suggestive ways over the course of modern social thinking, although not as a theory of embodied social relations shaping modes of being. Why do we love a dance party or big gig? Why is a demonstration so exhilarating? (Durkheim theorises ‘effervescence’.) Why do we brim with love when we hold our babies (though we might be murderous too)? Why is family inescapable? (Sexed bodies for Freud are key.) Why does ‘home’ connote the things it does? Why is the childhood kitchen, or mother’s hands, or the way she folds the bed linen so, not ‘meaningful’, but rather, redolent? (The condensation of meaning and alchemy of presence has to entertained.) The face to face is said to call out empathy—a common human recognition calls us to ethical attention (as Lévinas tells us). And so on….
And yet does any of that help us in the face of the digital world that Christos hints is so inadequate, that may be our ‘saviour’ in present circumstances, providing us the screens that are mediating interaction under lock down, but that, in much deeper ways, underlines the principal truth of our high-tech capitalist social form? A digital economy, yes, but built atop a basic social principle of non-presence in the extended form of relating that typifies digital networks. What an exploration of the familiar, of face-to-face relations, of bodied presence may yet give in these heightened circumstances of a particular kind of risk is an insight into how we might moderate the global, gather in the things that matter most, and curb the intentions of those powers that have no desire at all to change the way things were.