With the new coronavirus pandemic, the sense of touch has come under attack. Medical authorities insistently advise us: do not touch your face, do not touch doorknobs with your hands, and definitely do not touch others (no kisses on the cheek, handshakes, or other bodily greetings). It is easy to understand the reason behind such guidance. The virus is highly contagious and can survive not only on the skin but also on inorganic surfaces for a relatively long period of time. But the cultural frame of what is going on is at least as important as the biological or epidemiological explanation.
The acceleration of processes that went under a broad heading of globalization involved a growing virtualization of the world. To become a globe (which is, itself, a geometrical abstraction, rather than concrete reality), the world had to be reimagined as an ideal unity. Cultural homogenization, often opposed and criticized for impoverishing and razing local customs and ways of life, was but a side-effect of that idealizing movement.
A lion’s share of the work of virtualization was accomplished by the Internet, along with a whole slew of technologies for obviating or digitalizing touch: voice-controlled devices, touchless water taps, soap dispensers and flushes, not to mention contactless payment methods. Touch became obsessively linked to the touchscreens of smartphones and tablets that, as we have now learnt, could be perfect sites for spreading the coronavirus infection.
In a nutshell, it was a dream of globalization to create touchless reality, a virtual togetherness without bodily involvement. Tourists and politicians, UN workers and expatriate professionals, business consultants and (yes) academics could move throughout the globe as though they were disembodied spirits, present in the flesh as if they were not really present, not really exposed to sudden dangers and contingencies.
In the age of the new coronavirus, that dream has been shattered. It turns out that our means of transport carry more than their human passengers and that locations, which could be just about anywhere, like airports or big hotel chains, also host other forms of life or nonlife — viruses. This uninvited and invisible excess reminds us of the fact that, far from disembodied spirits, we exist thanks to our fragile bodies that may, in a matter of days, find themselves on the verge of serious illness or death.
The coronavirus pandemic signals a return of what has been suppressed or repressed by the entwined drives to globalize and virtualize the world, namely the body. And the body as a whole is represented by the sense of touch, its corresponding organ being not the hand, as we automatically assume, but skin. Just as jetlag testifies to discrepancies between our technological and physiological possibilities, so the current pandemic highlights the incongruities between the dream of virtualization-globalization, on the one hand, and living “in one’s skin,” rather than purely “in one’s head,” on the other.
Here, a seemingly negligible difference between infection and contagion comes to the fore. Infection literally means being tainted within, receiving something impure inside oneself. Contagion, as a Latinate rendition of “with-touch” or “touching-with,” entails not the infiltration of a foreign and potentially damaging substance into an organism, but communicability, the ability of pathological agents to jump from host to host. Like the touch it names, contagion happens on the surface, at the interface of surfaces in contact with one another. It leaves the fiction of contamination-as-infiltration behind and, instead of fixating on the distinction between the inside and the outside (as well as on the boundaries, borders or membranes separating the two), focuses on the territory of contact, the space in-between that makes every body but a transit station for viral self-replication.
The other peculiarity of contagion is that it disrespects divisions between areas we typically treat as totally independent: biology and economics, psychology and informatics. Viruses replicate themselves in living tissues and computer programs, through memes that “go viral” or through the DNA or RNA encoding of proteins, by which they act. Contagion spreads among members of a population, from one species to another (as in the case of coronaviruses), in financial markets, through rumors and fear, in the dissemination of ideologies, even as it produces feedback loops between these different areas.
Why do contagions have a significantly broader range and reach than infections? Is it not because contagion requires no more than the brushing of surfaces: of skin and skin, skin and a doorknob, fear-laced gossip and an ear receptive to it, an insolvent bank and similar institutions that lose investor confidence, financial markets and direct economies, “America First” and another nationalist “Me first”? Contagion, then, is all about touch, not incorporation — a factor that lends it its speed and the capacity to spread far and wide.
To return to the coronavirus pandemic: although the dynamics of touch call us back to our bodies, they do so under the sign of more severe repression still. If, before the current crisis, we simply forgot the body, failing to notice it as it seamlessly moved through and interacted with other bodies and surfaces of a globalized world, now we recall (indeed, are recalled to) its existence in an atmosphere of conscious negation, distilled in the injunction “do not touch” — not even yourself. (Does this injunction not parody the words Jesus addresses, according to John 20:17, to Mary Magdalene who recognizes him after his resurrection: Noli me tangere, “touch me not”?)
Strangely enough, the moment masses of people around the world are faced with the fragility of their bodies and lives—the moment we are called back to our corporeal existence—we must take measures to reduce direct contact with others, to retreat to the private cocoons of our homes. No sooner does the flesh-and-blood body make its comeback on a global scale than the virtualization of existence intensifies, with social life passing almost entirely to the Internet. In a pandemic, the dynamics of touch retrieve the body both as dramatically threatened and as a source of threat, reinstating the strictest version of its virtualization.
A period of respite from the fast-paced routine of our lives afforded to many by the COVID-19 pandemic should be an occasion for reflecting on what was going on before this viral outbreak and what the world, our relations to each other and to our own bodies might look like after it subsides. How does the virus intervene into the history of touch, shaped by social conventions, political and medical regimes, technological inventions? What are the senses of contagion spanning the increasingly “touchless” virtual reality and its suppressed actual underside? How to live and to think on the surface, with the overlapping (potentially contagious) surfaces we have mistaken for discrete things: bodies, economies, information systems and systems of beliefs?
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz.