Sunday, March 22, 2020

Place in the Time of the Virus

As a university lecturer I am now in the unenviable position of teaching undergraduate students without meeting them physically, with no communal lab resources, with no chats in the hallway... in short, without sharing place.

There are many tasks that can be accomplished with distance learning. I can put lectures online as videos, share lecture notes and screencasts, upload code. As a class we can chat individually or in groups, using video conferencing software.

But our sensory modalities are limited. Visually, we are now restricted to a two-dimensional array of pixels, without the depth and richness of an unmediated encounter. Our appreciation of each others' voices is hampered by frequency filtering, noise gates, and cross-moduation. Texture, scent, touch, and other sensory experiences are totally lacking. I miss the play of light in the classroom, and how the weather changes. (This season has seen snow, hail, and numerous storms with individualised characteristics.)

But what suffers the most in these telematic encounters is not any one sense, but the rich interplay of the senses as they inform one another.

[T]he environment that we experience, know and move around in is not sliced up along the lines of the sensory pathways by which we enter into it. The world we perceive is the same world, whatever path we take, and each of us perceives it as an undivided centre of activity and awareness. -- Tim Ingold

As we trace a path through the physical spaces we encounter daily, we can do nothing else than share these wayfarings with those who came before us. Someone decided how to first set foot on the brambled field. Someone made the first steps that later became a path, as others trod in their wake. Perhaps it then became a cart track, a boundary between fields, a property line, a road, a motorway.

Similarly, someone decided where a door would be placed, how heavy it might be, how difficult to open, and in which direction. Constraints of built space encourage certain routes within a building, from office to classroom. Or from building to building, seeking cover in the rain. These facilitate personal encounters in certain environs, but discourage social discourse in others.

Places are constructed through the experience of encountering them. We are constrained by previous decisions, formal or informal, conscious or otherwise. And our own actions then precipitate further development of the places we inhabit, establishing constraints for those who follow. Places are laid down in sedimented layers. They are not a thing, but a process.

Social constraints, strongly determined by cultural norms, allow us to stand just so close to someone else, to shake hands or bow on greeting, to kiss one time, two, or even three on the cheeks. And now, in the time of the virus, we have physical distancing. (Can we not use the incorrect and damaging phrase "social distancing"?) New norms establish themselves, largely driven by fear.

What I have termed a platial approach to the world asserts this primacy of place as milieu, a responsive context that shapes, and is shaped by, being-in-the-world (Heidegger). Platial thinking posits place as the first of all things (Casey). This is an inversion of the usual spatial approach, the dominant thought that place somehow derives from the abstractions of space, and not from our phenomenological encounters with a living world.

What we lack now -- in this telematic world of YouTube, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams -- is place. Not because we don't have our own personal milieu to inhabit, to make our own. And not because we cannot create shared experiences. But because we must encounter each other in a static and limited domain, based on the severe curtailment of our senses.

We are no longer creating place together as a dynamic that grows and changes. We must instead accept each place as a static construct, a given defined by our rather limited software. This dead place is no place at all.

I miss the light in the eyes when an idea is first glimpsed, the intake of breath when a powerful image hits home, the bowed heads listening to a novel composition in concert. I miss the clatter of hail that turns attention to the windows. And the scream of delight when it starts to snow.

I am going to miss a lot of things, now.

(This rather conservative view is not my entire thinking on this point. Virtual worlds, facilitated through richer software environments than those mentioned here, offer place-building possibilities. But the utopian promises of virtual reality have never, and will never, come to fruition. These technologies might create useful micro-worlds, but the very fact these have a physical substrate in the quotidian limits their possibilities. A social relationship in online platform can be as real as any other relationship. But it is the real-world virus, less so the computer virus, that will put an end to such an encounter.)


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