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Dancing in the Dark

14. August 2020

Written by Gilles Verpraet.

The Corona crisis will change our conditions of observation. The clarification of sociological positioning for observation and interpretation requires a heuristic of subjectivity. Two main figures are shaping this heuristic: the suffering body and the virtual body, connected as well as elaborated through dense internet practices. On the basis of this heuristic the alteration of communicative action can be analyzed.

The heuristic of subjectivity and the heuristic of positioning are relevant not only to envision the related subject in a vulnerable situation, but also to specify the articulation between different repertoires in a fragmented yet interconnected world (Schütz, 1973). Methodological individualism is facing a paradox in this extraordinary situation. We may be able to observe different motivations of the subject, but social action is impeded when exchange in the public space is banned. In this new situation methodological individualism can be maintained by means of a novel heuristic of the subject.

Spacing the virus

How can we hold a heuristic position in the face of a danger? How to live with protective practices, confinement practices, surveillance practices? How to accept a viral time where the biological virus seems to follow the social and global networks and coexists with internet viruses (Baudrillard, 1993). Subjects develop intense protection practices of intimacy to reframe relations of exchange. This containment of health and intimacy implies some requalification of existing encounters. By addressing the right distance, sociologigists may initiate an observation and to sustain an appropriate reflection on the dialogic relations between internalization and externalization of the self, to maintain an active relationship between dependence and motor skills.

Suffering body and virtual body

An ethnography of subjectivity is sensitive to the different figures and repertoires mobilized in this situation of uncertainty. The virtual body and the suffering body shape salient figures to apprehend a new time of uncertainty.

The suffering body is the primary figure in this pandemic. Few people seem to fall severely ill (0,03%) but the potential risk of contamination by mere breathing within a context of urban density and high mobility is speeding up the circulation of the virus. The hospital attends the final process with high risk, where 30% of sick people are concerned. The question of existence depends on resilient suffering (vitamin dopamine) or strong suffering due to overreaction of the body to the inflammatory virus.

The virtual body shapes a figure created by informational artifacts and internet simulations through image composition and multiple mental universes (Milon,  2005). The virtual body also constitutes a transitional object in our relationship with machines. (Artists have long been developing these transitional relations between the virtual body and internet devices. Already in the 2000s they could authenticate the figures of interface and mask.)

The interface and the mask: Changes in communicative action

Envisioning the many figures of the virtual body in cyberculture, we have the body without matter, the body without fragility, the body without plasticity (such as the avatar). “Cyberspace is a complex relationship system that seeks to replace the face with the network” (Milon, 2005). In the field of cyberculture, the notion of the subject became an absolute entity, a pure thought, a multiplicity free from the constraints of the body, but also quite volatile in substance.

“In the wish to multiply its identities, the interface ends up losing not only its face, cyber culture has only retained the mask as if the mask could understand the complexity of the face. The face does not just express body expressions. Rather, it says moving into action what the body feels. It remains the most expressive part because the most visible of the body“(Milon 2005).This commutation between the interface and the mask echo of Asian and Islamic practices in European cultures. We are confronted with the polycontexturality of faces between our face of identity and images of other faces. But we cannot argue a common meaning of these masks. The Asian mask has long been established as a means of prevention in dense urban contexts. The polycontexturality in the experience of the mask presupposes a quick commutation between places and cultures (from Wuhan to Bergamo).

These two figures have by now become markers of our daily life in order to manage the relationship with the other, by distance and transition, by distance and protection. Working from home and wearing masks are new defining parts of labor relationships. The figures of interface and mask also govern the relationship to ourselves, insofar as we have to manage the internalization of the risk for disease and the externalization framed by the internet. A new type of subjectivation seems to be emerging, oscillating between vulnerability and plasticity, between the plasticity of artefacts and tools, the plasticity of networks and their informative configurations (Lash 2017). But the extended plasticity of networks coexists with an intense feeling of vulnerability, which is a consequence of modernity. After the peak, vulnerability will take the place of the virus threat between diffusion and uncertain spillover. How could this divided subject be involved inside the new forms of social relations?

How to reset urban sociabilities?

What is the future of urban sociability within the network of tensions between confinement, protection and restricted mobility? The reopening of displacement can be conceived as a reset of urban life, offering a unique moment of observation of the new arrangements between the informational interface and the mask. How will urban exchange be refigured by these new/old motives of action (health, security, safety, protection). Old and new issues are cropping up, such as adaptability, modification, plasticity.

How are our sociabilities altered by these new figures, as modified coffee place, as changing family transitions? Children at home or children at school make a difference. The work place alternates between presence at the office and work from home for those in the intermediate professions (teachers, clerks) and knowledge professions (experts, scientists). This double sequence will refigure these tensions as a functional achievement, but the porosity of transient spaces could be reduced by functional acceleration and norms.

The two figures of the suffering body and the virtual body may overlap in public spaces, in contexts of urban sociability. This may lead to an extension of urban vulnerabilities. Art practices using information devices will develop a specific epistemology, between operator, a certain type of reality and interaction systems. This is the new way to monitor the performance of new information technology devices. It could also be a way of observing the multiple and constrained effects of the virus and the pandemic on our idea of reality (as social reality and virtual reality) in a given space of uncertainty. The new informational constructivism has to learn to deal with the requirement of intersubjective transactions and urban transitions.

Following and analyzing the metaphor of ‘dancing’ could be an heuristic manner to explore the new turn. Revisiting the ballet Kontakthof composed by Pina Bausch (1978/2000) consider the people balancing between performing the overall movement and the erratic movement.

// Here you sing and dance, but seated , we like you !
You may kiss ,who you want, but with distance ! //

The ballet specifies singular subjects shaken by the synchrony of the whole movement which sets the clock of social times, the clock between social generations. Interface shifts and mask protection shifts are not unusual in urban life, and they are managed by avoidance tactics. In the face of the pandemic, these tactics will become the rule for the management of chaotic relations in the urban public.

The metaphor of dancing can be considered as an intensive exploration of the refiguration of the new order of social interaction (Knoblauch, 2020). The metaphor articulates both a spatial configuration and a musical configuration. Dance is also a metaphor for human destiny. “The tango creates a troubled and unreal past which in a way is true, the impossible memory of having died at the corner of a street in the Faubourg”. Jorge Luis Borges so described the Argentine soul in his book Tango (2018: 121). The current period marked by the pandemic nurtures a dual feeling of plasticity (cultural, virtual) and high vulnerability.

Which sustainability?

How are we to reformulate acceptable conditions for a sustainable future? The classic approaches to environmental sustainability are grounded in local risk experiences, in environmental injustices producing diffuse feelings of vulnerability in public life. In the face of strong vulnerabilities of international trade relationships, the pandemic tends to refigure these articulations, pushing the limits of plasticity. The corona crisis underlines an extension of the criteria for health sustainability in the face of new dangers through exchange networks. New policies have to include a combination of sanitary health sustainability (hospitals, vaccines, respiratory equipment), urban sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

New public norms are required within the new public health order, such as the standards of physical distance. The arrangement of these standards presupposes sustainable trajectories in every area where lifestyles are formed. How  we  determine the advancement of these standards in line with the stages of social and economic life recovery? We have to identify the recovery trajectories and to specify the role of institutions pursuing sustainability trajectories.

This approach emphasizes the tensions emerging between the reshaping of subjectivities and the refiguration of communicative actions. The reshaping of sustainability is a central task if we want to find an acceptable degree of resilience in the face of new vulnerabilities. The refiguration of our spatial potential depends on these  basic variables – how the virus operates on our genes, on bodily regimes and regulations, on distributing networks. ‘Space as resilience’ is approaching as a new figure for classifying communicative space. In times of hardship, dancing is a concrete way to explore our potential space (Winnicott).


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Gilles Verpraet (2011): How to shape society? The social explanandum in Latour and Descola. Social Theory Newsletter.
Gilles Verpraet (2020): Configurations – la configuration comme métaphore et comme hypothèse. In : Farrugia/Moutchouris,  Les outils de la sociologie. ‘l’harmattan.