Physical Distancing as Social Action

Kelly McKisson
Department of English

Feminist scholars have long theorized how the comfort of our bodies is maintained by the labor of others. The fragile ecologies in which we make our lives are maintained collectively by our relations with others, by their bodies. “However we choose to think of the social body,” Eula Biss writes, “we are each other’s environment.”[1] What we often understand as individual qualities—such as health—or individual acts are contingent and collective, conditioned by our entanglement in these relational ecologies.

I think “social distancing” is a harmful misnomer for our COVID-19 response strategy. I first encountered this thought in an early March tweet from Alexis Shotwell: “in my class today we decided that we should start calling it ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing,’ since we all need lots and lots of social solidarity and closeness but lots and lots of physical boundaries to protect the vulnerable.”[2] In this time of quarantine, we must actively and collectively work to sustain our social by coordinating our physical acts.

A tweet by Alexis Shotwell reading "So, in my class today we decided that we should start calling it "physical distancing" instead of "social distancing," since we all need lots and lots of social solidarity and closeness but lots and lots of physical boundaries to protect the vulnerable.

Herd immunity is an example of a successful collective strategy for sustaining public health against viral infection. Herd immunity is a concept partly explained by Biss’s claim that “we are each other’s environment”; however, herd immunity only works when a critical mass of the population can be vaccinated to prevent viral contamination of the whole. Currently there is no vaccine for the novel corona virus. Because developing so-called natural immunity would require putting millions of people at risk of death, our best strategy in this pandemic is to remain physically distant in a coordinated effort to slow and stop transmission.

This act of so-called social distancing is difficult because it challenges our deep training in individualism. This is the main reason that the name is inappropriate: the act of physical distancing requires a social collective to perform it. This distancing is not an act that can be located in the individual, which is partly why we are having a hard time knowing what to do as individuals right now. We aren’t properly or uniformly trained, especially in these neoliberal times, to act as a social body. It further complicates the issue when we admit that our social is made up of multiple groups facing various forms of precarity and privilege: we need to act in unison and also with intention to support those of us most vulnerable to infection, and most vulnerable to violence, right now.

In her book, Against Purity, Shotwell argues for a “distributed or social conception of ethical possibility,” which “might be understood to be contingent on multiple guarantors and social conditions in analogous ways to the navigation of a ship coming into port”—for those of us watching at home, think of the docking scenes from Bravo TV’s Below Deck, where the deckhands call out distances from shore to Captain Sandy, who steers the ship without fully seeing the relation of ship to port.[3] The social practice of physical distancing asks us to think about health as an act of distributed cognition, where each of us does our small part even though we cannot see the entire collective working. We are not used to thinking about our health in this way, but Biss describes it as “a shared space—a garden we tend together.”[4]

The tradition of feminist thinking on interdependence can teach us to think this way. M. NourbeSe Philip writes that “We all begin life because someone once breathed for us / Until we breathe for ourselves.”[5] Soon, many more of us will be breathing with the aid of machines. Those machines will be maintained by laboring bodies, risking their health for the care of others. Philip remembers that we all live “in a prepositional relationship with breathing … this most fundamental of acts is always a contingent one—breathing for, with, instead of, and into.”[6] If we foreground dependency in this moment of pandemic, might directions for these collective acts become more clear? That is, rather than revising our notion of the social toward the individual, might we be guided by notions of interdependency, to help us process the impact of small, partial acts?

We should pay close attention to how individuals and institutions recognize interdependency in this moment when making important choices. I hope that our collective can perform the distributed act of distancing that is necessary to keep most people safe and healthy. I would feel much better about the outcome if I knew someone competent was steering this ship.

[1] Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation. Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 163.

[2] Alexis Shotwell tweet, @alexisshotwell, 12 Mar 2020. (Shotwell tweet png image file)

[3] Shotwell, Against Purity, U Minnesota P, p. 128-9. And, really, if you haven’t seen Below Deck, may I suggest it for your quarantine pleasure? For example, there’s so much here to analyze:

[4] Biss, p. 163.

[5] M. NourbeSe Philip, “The Ga(s)p,” in Poetics and Precarity, ed. Myung Mi Kim and Cristianne Miller, Robert Creeley Lectures in Poetry and Poetics, U of Buffalo, SUNY P, 2018, pp. 31-40, 31.

[6] Philip, p. 31.