The Perversity of Social Distancing

The Perversity of Social Distancing

Rosemary Hennessy, English

Social distancing, I’ve decided, is perverse.

Isn’t “distancing” contrary to the very essence of “social”? As human animals, social is what we have done for ages: sharing and gathering close in order to reproduce a way of life interdependently.  Yet here we are in the twenty-first century, turning to the practice of distancing for our very survival.  I wonder if contemplating “our very survival” is over dramatizing. And then I think of the oral surgery resident, Dr. Yijiao Fan, 31, who showed up at Brooklyn Hospital’s ER coughing blood and is now on a ventilator, and of Kious Kelly, 48, the first nurse in New York City to die of COVID-19.

A male doctor is pictured in a white coat.

I wonder, too, if the pronouns “our” and “we” that I use so casually are adequate to conjure the dramatically extensive and uneven scale of human precarity now: from the home-bound anxiously taking care of loved ones, to essential workers who provide services while risking infection, and first responders calculating who is expendable or dying themselves.

The romantic community conjured by “we” is often solicited in this time of crisis, but it is surely a frayed congregation. Some who live in the U.S. have long been distant members of the national imagination, never fully part of the flock or herd. Others are unexpectedly becoming expendable because there are not enough tests, caregivers, or ventilators. Some become visible from a distance through news reports, like the one about the death of the New York City nurse, while others remain in the shadows. I am thinking of the thousands of undocumented immigrants, the poultry workers in Texas and Mississippi, for example, already challenged to manage their marginal social belonging. Now they are joined by over ten million (and counting)  unemployed in the U.S., many with no savings, no health care, and fewer chances to survive.

Feminists have struggled for decades to make visible the gendered, essential, yet devalued labor of care work, most often done by women. Essential to life-making, it enhances capital accumulation precisely by being undervalued. It does not take place at a distance but up close and hands-on in tending to bodies, food preparation, childcare, elder care, or health care. In the time of social distancing, many are laboring more intensely in these now dangerous activities. Some, like Kious Kelly, will die from doing it.

There is a crisis of social reproduction happening on planet earth, and I do not know if there is knowledge adequate to address it. As feminist theorists and critics, we will need to come to terms with this inadequacy.

I wonder if that process may mean reassessing the perverse value of distancing to human sociality. Alongside the intimate interdependencies of social life, might the capacity for distance actually afford ways of knowing essential to survival? I am thinking of the critical distance that structures the collection of facts and data, the compilation of trends, the work of scientific assessment, review, and verification. There is also surely value to the capacity for critical distance that humanists cultivate, the distance that enables understanding history and that equips us as readers of the present. This perhaps uniquely human capacity for distance enables wonder as well as analysis. It makes possible questioning the obvious and comprehending the social relations that got us here. In this time of social distancing’s seeming perversity, this kind of distance is an invaluable resource. I want to imagine it undergoing continual re-invention in the days to come, accompanied by the critical activation of a “we” that means all of us.