As a rampant global pandemic spreads, we try to curtail its transmission by isolating ourselves from each other and public surfaces. We use masks and surgical gloves in an unprecedented manner to form sanitary barriers between our individual bodies and the physical world we inhabit. The topology of bodies, management of space, a reconfiguration of social practices and economies has upturned many societies and lives. Our humanly existence as creatures becomes both reinforced and reconfigured as we experience being in the pandemic? world. This experience is governed? mediated? through sanitary barriers, whilst reproducing underlying assumptions of modernist individuality.
Barriers mediate our direct physical engagement and experience of the world, and seemingly bolster the contours of our bodies. With an interior and exterior, we are reminded of our material existence despite the digital-age in which we live. We are organisms with bodily borders. We leak and spill, we move and grow, and as verbs we are in constant process of living and being, of becoming. individuality.
This unprecedented and potentially reoccurring widespread use of sanitary paraphernalia raises interesting questions of what dwelling in the world through sanitary barriers means and does for human creatures. We are violently reminded of our fragile connectedness to the things, objects, surfaces and material involved in mundane interactions,as we are paradoxically brought closer and further from them. We are at once distanced from a direct bodily engagement with the world whilst being reminded of it.
During severe lockdowns many have yearned to go outside, feel the breeze, breathe and immerse themselves in the open air. The desire for being outdoors and not confined within walls has significantly intensified as much of the world dialogued over Zoom. Meanwhile, the sheer amount of public surfaces to avoid and the cleanliness of our hands have been on our collective mind during our infectious pandemic. The ‘thinginess’ of the world has been emphasized as we keep away from it.
Our very movements through public spaces have been thought out and reorganized. The physicality of the communal world and our bodies and their movements become objects of study and knowledge, of worry and speculation, of discipline and control. Regular biological processes such as respiration have become matters of techno-scientific gaze and political intervention anew. Political divisions emerge as some of us uptake and some reject expertise and authority on how to defend oneself and protect the other. The responsibility that we have as individuals towards our neighbors and common species has too become a loud discourse. Fighting Covid-19 further individualized us through the need to manage biological processes - breathing and moving - and the individual responsibilities that emerge with it. The materiality of the world, and ours as organisms, has been reified and brought to the forefront of attention through an active and calculated lack of it and the responsibilities that ensue.
Protecting each other and ourselves from infectious diseases seems to then both reinforce and interrogate how we think of society and humans.Reminded of our material existence and individual responsibilities, we nevertheless risk distancing us from the materials and life itself. Masks distance us from our direct phenomenal experience of being immersed in our environment. They also reinforce the conception of bounded bodies and singular subjects.
With our masks and gloves on, meters away from the next person, and carefully navigating our bodies to avoiding touching things, we seemingly enclose ourselves within our personal barriers. ‘Blobs’ with a defied contour; an arbitrary externality and knowable interior, logical intentionality against the world which she finds herself in. The Modern human as rational economic actor, with scientifically knowable essence, burdened with individual obligations and coherently engaging against its surrounding. As a blob we are pitted against the surrounding world, frozen in time and space, only to experience it either as symbolic interpretation or knowable fact. Yet with boundaries that spill and a yearning for fresh air, we are also reminded of how we are physically immersed into the world. Sweating through and FPP-2 mask is a stark reminder of the non-discursive ways we experience qualities of the world and how they emerge through our very engagement.
What are the qualities of air? They can be ‘out there’ known by science, in the mind interpreted through text, but they can also be felt by the body as they emerge and unfold through activity. Our worlds emerge as we live through them; ‘lifeworlds’ where the environment and the agent co-constitute one-another. Being and living as a process that is inextricably connected to its milieu; being-in-the-world. We are reminded of our bodies as sites of existence that are immersed in a world-in-the-making as we chat via Zoom and respire through a mask. The very process of living - be it highlighted through the static ennui of a lock-in, the calculated steps and movements aligning in a hygienically-measured cue, the troublesome respiration of shared air - is emphasized as a verb rather than a noun. Defending ourselves from the spread of infection should remind us life is an ongoing process - a matter of becoming - and not of singular and aggregatable entities against a blank backdrop of a brute material world.
This moment of disruption from ‘normality’ poses an opportunity to investigate the foundations of our ‘normality’ - an opportunity to question the underlying notions that loosely provide a ‘state of affairs; or ‘order of things’ through which we make sense of the world. Our relationships to one another, to oneself, and us as a species in the world become highlighted as we seek to fight off disease. The Modern technique of an individualization of persons by a management of collective life force and individual docility together with an emphasis on surfaces and bodily barriers performs us as distinct entities paradoxically brings us closer and further from our lived material existence.
We much appreciate our material existence now more than ever, in times of uncertainty through pandemic or anthropocentric global destruction and digitally-mediated sociality. Thinking of life as situated within a physical context in terms of process and becomings might be helpful in adjusting in the long-term. If being human is a process-in-the-making, of becoming-with and becoming-along aswe shield ourselves from infection in this ‘new normal’, how do we become-with-masks in a satisfactory way? We become-disease; past Illnesses and epidemics have not been external forces upon our day-to-day lives but intrinsically shaped them. Immunity and vaccination literally entails incorporating the virus within us; and few aspects of society have been irreversibly untouched by this pandemic. Whilst this epidemic strongly enacts human living as blobs distanced from the materials and process of life, we must not ask how to return to ‘normality’ but rather how to live Post-Life: how to live and thrive with this pandemic.