ONE.* THE GEARBOX OF AFFECT JUST THREW THE ENORMOUS FLYWHEEL OF HABIT INTO REVERSE. William James famously exclaimed that habit is “the enormous flywheel of society. A flywheel is a round device in a car, the spinning of which is ignited by the starter engine. When the car’s wheels start to turn, the flywheel absorbs the wheel’s energies and, using angular momentum, keeps the car moving smoothly, even thought the input from the wheels is sometimes jerky. Said phenomenologically: Human experience ignites our social proclivity to form habits and these habits, using the neural pathways laid out and reiterated by experience, keep society moving smoothly (or at least predictably) through life, even though life is not always smooth (or predictable). With the corona virus, however, the gearbox that throws the car into reverse before the car is ready for it. In the face of the direct, invisible, and rapidly spreading bioinsecurity of COVID-19, affect kicked into gear. Or rather, our collective affect threw our bodies into reverse, breaking our social habits virtually overnight and leaving jagged edges of anxiety, fear and desperation.
James thought it was conscious volition that could imminently redirect habit, but no: it’s affect, specifically the primal emotions that galvanize bodily protection.
TWO. THE WORLD IS MADE FOR TOUCHING HANDS. As I’ve turned this week to gestures and practices of minimizing my engagements with the world, I’ve come to experience in my body what disability theorists have taught me intellectually. The human world is made for hands. No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve wanted to pass through without using my hands and no matter where I’ve gone, things have popped out at me for my hands. In her recent book, What’s the Use?, Sara Ahmed cites design theorist Donald Norman on affordance: “An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used.” The objects of the world (doors, cars, grocery stores) afford the use of hands. Ahmed also cites disability theorist Aimi Hamraie, “Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair, or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it.” Examining the objects of my life, I find the outline of fingers and hands.
THREE. WHEN HELP IS LETHAL: THE ETHICS OF SOCIAL DISTANCING. I am an introvert but I enjoy the small and anonymous encounters of daily life, like holding a door open for someone, or stepping in front of a toddler rushing headlong toward traffic, or helping someone at the store get their things onto the cashier’s conveyor belt or into their car. But now, with our mandated self-distancing I find myself watching in grieving abeyance as the elderly and disabled around me struggle with doors, drop things, and try to lift things (see TWO above). The propulsion to help is matched by the repulsion not to harm. This is the ethics of social distancing. It elicits the creativity of other responses: a cheery word, speaking the desire to help, distracting from the struggle of the moment to the situation we share together. In her new book, The Force of Non-violence, Judith Butler argues that non-violence is a revolutionary practice, not a state of being or a singular response to an event. We can practice this practice now, in the abeyance of social distancing that, in making touch taboo, challenges us to connect, to love and assist, to demonstrate honor and respect, in ways that are direct but not physical.
*Now is a rare moment when I wish I had a gorgeous platform for this blog that would allow me to create three text-boxes, each outlined in a different color and positioned at angles such that they make a triangle, the base of which aligns with the left side of the blog “page”. In times of utter social chaos, I seek refuge in aesthetic control, I guess. I trust anyone reading this to make the requisite effort to imagine this.