It often happens that external events look as if they have been predetermined from inside. For instance, Spanish conquistadores came and defeated Aztecs when their empire was already crumbling under the weight of internal contradictions and waited for some gods to finish it off; Mongols came and defeated Russian princes at the moment of their highest discord, and so on. The invaders serve to uncover and, so to say, emblematize the tendencies ripening within the invaded societies. Many philosophers, from Gottfried Leibniz to contemporary Russian-Israeli thinker Yoel Regev, reflected on this strange mirroring between the internal and the accidental logics.
The new “corona”-virus is in many ways a catalyst of new potentials, the most obvious of which is precisely the shift of our existence online: the capacity of reducing every external event to the internal (that is, virtual) universe. It is thus an event of events, a coincidence of coincidences. The very intrusion of the virus works much in the same way: penetrating the inner core of a cell, the virus lets it destroy the organism, as though from inside, due to its own functioning.
Less evident, however, is another coincidence. The virus brings about norms of what is now commonly named “social distancing”. When the epidemic was only starting, several of my colleagues recently refused to shake my extended hand, which would have normally been treated as the highest insult, but is now considered the new normal. But, the social distancing has very recently been an issue for an absolutely different reason.
In 2017, the media reported that in Hollywood, they no longer gave hugs as a way of greeting. This did not yet have anything to do with hygiene, but with the budding awareness of sexual domination, of domination involved in sexuality, during events initiated by the #metoo flashmob. There, too, social distance became one of the central issues.
In many cases, the abuse of women at work or at school was due to a culture of informal friendliness that became common after 1968, invigorated by a new spirit of capitalism. The other side of casual horizontal sociability at a workplace, where real hierarchies remain in place, is the vulnerability of subordinates to the ambiguity of intimacy with a superior. Therefore, the widespread response to #metoo was the return to a more formal execution of power relations, to a work and study culture that preceded the social democratization and that goes back to the nineteenth century, the time when in high society spouses addressed each other with a “Vous”.
A better response, in my view, would be to question power hierarchies themselves and to introduce a true—not a “pretend horizontality”—through democratic procedure in the workplace and, to some extent, even at school. But, it is true that the current post-1968 model is contradictory in this regard. Then, again, so is generally our contemporary society.
The turn to a technological urban culture and “mass society” in the twentieth century was accompanied by an increase in “social distance”. This concept goes back to the work of German sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies and Georg Simmel. Both saw the increase in social distance among people, their mutual alienation and superficial way of socializing, as a paradoxical feature of a “massified” way of life which, physically, brought millions of people closer to each other in an unprecedented way. Two tendencies have been at work simultaneously: on the one hand, atomization and anonymization, on the other, the democratization and spread of plebeian social practices that led people, particularly in the United States, abandon many conventional social rituals—for instance, to start calling colleagues, including one’s superiors, by their diminutive first name, instead of “Mr./Ms + the surname.”
The difficulty of maintaining close friendships, in the US society, is a paradoxical reason why knots in the digital network of our contacts are called “friends”. One wants friends and, at the same time, rejects the proximity that this word implies. The upper classes were once too formal and cool; now, they are accused of abusive familiarity. The reality is a crisis of social distance, where one no longer understands what distance to hold and what distance actually means in a society. Its psychological outcome is a hysterical or/and an obsessive disposition. A hysteric (nothing to do with gender, in this context), is the one who expects proximity but finds distance, resulting in emotional, theatrical, aggressive behavior of some who craves for recognition. An obsessive vulnerably, in turn, reacts to proximity as to a violation of his/her social space and turns to formal norms to fix the situation.
Now, again, all of this happened well before the pandemic, but the pandemic hit the same old wound. What is meant by “social distancing” is not just the lack of physical contact, but the avoidance of collectively lived events, a behavior that would highlight and emblematize the (anyway ongoing) social atomization of an individualist society. The pandemic suddenly made us feel and witness the usually concealed hard structure or, a philosopher would say, the transcendental conditions of possibility, of our civil society – an individualist atomized agglomerate, best illustrated by the frame of Zoom videoconferences, with their juxtaposed portraits.
“Social distance” is the new meme. Recently, CNN published a well-taken response to this from several UCLA sociologists, who contended that the term was actually wrong (unfortunately, their intervention came too late!). At issue is physical, not social, distance. No one is asking people, in this particular case, to have less friends or to treat them less emotionally. They can still cry together over Zoom or Skype. But the physical and the symbolic are interwoven and, as in my example with handshakes (a practice that has long declined in USA, though not in Europe), one has hard time standing back from another person without hurting his or her feelings.
Thus, the “social distance” motto is a symptomatic emblem of what is going on, precisely because of the qui pro quo between the physical and the social that it embodies. We see physical distance, but we think of the social distance, because it is our soft spot. Similarly, in the case of #metoo: the right—this time around—concern with social distance between colleagues turned the physical issue of sexual contact around; it focused on an ambiguous physical fact that can equally mean love or domination, which, pace the official line, are so often hard to tell one from another. As Michael Marder recently wrote, the pandemic put touch into question, as the very point of union between the physical and the ideal, the material and the psychic.
What we face in the current pandemic of “zooming” is the same dialectical entanglement. Material contact is excluded and there is a frustrating abstractness in realtions, but, on the other hand, the interface gives us the much more personalized and zoomed-in images of others than most interpersonal communication ever would. We visually penetrate the intimate spaces of our colleagues, and, against their background, full-screen, they appear as significant, imposing figures in the spirit that preceded mass society. What is this zooming—a distancing or, on the contrary, a close-up? Clearly, there is a dialectic between the two: the loss of an outside connection makes us re-connect via the inside, the incapacity to touch induces a closer ideal interconnection. This is not a happy idealism, but a post-catastrophic one, the one that depends on a symbolic destruction (sublation) of the outdoors. The virus is acting on more levels than we would think it is: by preventing it from penetrating the body, we cannot prevent it from infiltrating the soul. I could even figuratively add that the very zoom-world of our dissociated virtual universe can be best described as a view of society from the perspective of the virus, acting as a sui generis nano-camera of society.
The role of the virus, this minuscule particle, makes complete sense here. It is a projection of a hyper-powerful subject of idealist knowledge, for whom media-driven curiosity is another side of a hyperbolized anxiety. Coronavirus is fully material (ultra-real), but its status as a lethal micro-monad is a logical projection of this hypochondriac hyper-subject who, in its ambition of total reach, is hunting for the slightest material trace of danger and is ready to respond to it with the full power of social self-immunization. (Hence, the virus is not only a regressive material remainder as Žižek would have it, but also a reflection of the subject’s searching negativity).
The same hypochondriac logic is at work in terrorism, which is an inevitable abuse of the institution of mediatic hyper-attention and which also provokes a violent securitization. But “war on terrorism” implies aggression, while the virus-hunt leads to the purely negative, dissociative effect of fear. Society idealistically dissolves into external atoms, in order to protect itself against the smaller, internal nano-monads that, paradoxically, block any attempt at seamless monadization. (Does not sex play the same role in interpersonal relations?) Through a pure play of nature, we fall prey to the dialectic of understanding as a medium of dissolution.
Politically, this implies the need to pay attention to the democratic undercurrent of interpenetration and solidarity that is often concealed behind the dominant tendency to monadological compartmentalization. The crisis of social distance is not only the problem of anonymous mass societies, but, more exactly, of our half-democratic societies that replace comradery (here I refer to useful distinctions recently made by Jodi Dean) with sex and physical mutual help, with symbolical rituals. The virus, like harassment, penetrates bodies, but the real fear is that it also penetrates souls (that are left alone and exposed). At the same time, what penetrates, or triggers, souls (above all, the sentimental propaganda of the media), does not actually lead to any substantial transformations.
While the challenge of death or trauma is enormous, it should lead us to search and positively rethink the social bond that these two activate in us negatively. I do not see the way to do it without democratizing: which means, re-symbolizing and re-ritualizing our social life by getting rid of the illusions of its “private” and “emotional” immediacy. For, if you live your individual life in an irrational, external manner, and take your peers as external accidents (be they nice or pernicious), then a virus, or money, might take over your inner logic.