The Immediacy of Touchlessness

social distancing

Part I


My motive for writing this piece

is to reach, by some other way,

Barbara Bryson,

and tell her that we love her.


The citation below is taken from the album “Exodus” by the late Bob Marley, whose music rekindles hope for a better future.  It stands out because it brings us peace of mind at a time when are faced with a virus that has claimed so many hundreds of thousands of lives.  It is marked that the pandemic has forced us to itch for a sense of normalcy as we barely emerge from the nightmare-like isolation we have been kept in for so long.  Like the afternoon that ripens into evening, with a single bound, we leap for joy when we listen to Marley.  And if “One Love” was voted song of the millennium by the World Health Organization, “Natural Mystic” brings home the idea of how shallow-minded we have been when it comes to life and death as confirm the figures of the greatness of the calamity and the violence of the distemper of this fatal year.  I quote:

There’s a natural mystic
Blowing through the air
If you listen carefully now you will hear
This could be the first trumpet
Might as well be the last
Many more will have to suffer
Many more will have to die
Don’t ask me why
Things are not the way they used to be
I won’t tell no lie
One and all got to face reality now.  [Emphasis added]

Note the wit and play on words of the poet that is Marley who speaks with a prophetic soul: “Many more will have to die.”  The song derives its interest from the topicality of its subject. That we utterly failed to take him seriously stems from an unbridled carelessness.  And if some of his songs chime with our feelings today, it is because he intended them as a wake-up call.   Let this be a warning to you, he seems to be saying.  He is right insofar as we have been raping and ripping apart Mother Earth for a long time.  As to what is going to happen to her in the future, we have no idea.  Unless the pandemic and its aftermath force us to steer the ship in a different direction, the essence of which lies in a genuine politics of care for the planet—a habitat not only for humans but for aquatic life, air, water, flora, and fauna as well—we run the risk of self-destruction.  Let us therefore stop putting on a semblance of sorrow for ourselves and get on with the task ahead.  After all, we are the first sinners, aren’t we!

The pandemic is a “total social fact” as Marcel Mauss would have it.  What Mauss means is that we are knee-deep in destruction of the eco-system that has sustained us for so long.  For it stems from a pernicious consumerist system that has ensnared us for half a millennium while it showcases its artificial intelligence by hiding all the undercurrents that made it possible in the first place.  It is in this sense that we must understand the bedlam, which is a reactive psychosis that compresses not only the singularities of a given society—say, America, but also certain traits of postindustrial capitalism that rules the world—what Paul Joseph Crutzen termed the “age of man.”  One example of such folly is to be found in the unprecedented shrinking of the natural resources, intensive farming, industrial agriculture, internal colonialism, the extraction of fossil fuels and iron, copper, gold, diamond, rare earths 95 percent of which come from China.

Accordingly, the pandemic forces upon us the wonder of life at every hour of the day.  It makes us feel as if we survived the lockdown only to discover that we are still shut away in our homes, where we engage in a comedy of sorts, a blend of infantilism and netflixism.  We find ourselves in a locomotive that has come to an abrupt stop between two stations and none of us is able to get off.  If it is any comfort to us we gaze at the news from behind glass windows; news that parades our fellow humans wearing white blouses, face masks, rubber gloves, and plastic shields while caring for the sick, whose lives have been put on hold.  Whether our choice will make the difference, we are not sure.  What is plain is that the train must leave the station.  But to go where?  We are short of an answer.  We are, however, certain that in its suddenness and our dismay, in the hardships we bear and in the forfeiture of our freedoms, the pandemic brings us together as one people; a people who are going through one of the truly rare moments in history when we must decide which path to follow.  Were he still alive, Robert Frost might suggest we take the “road less travelled by.”  What difference our choice will make, we will never know.

In the interval, we make do with what we have.  In the future, we will not stop, I presume, remembering the panic that got hold of us as well as what has ensued from the virus while counting on our optimism (of the will) to be ready at the midnight hour when the bell rings perhaps for the last time to signal the opening of the gate.  At the same time, we continue to be torn apart between a Self that is made of flesh and blood and another molded out of sweat and tears, hanging in a simulacrum of freedom; in fine, a double je able to roam and fantasize about the world while it sits in front of the television, which beams into our homes the good, the bad, and the ugly news via multiple satellites hovering above our heads.  We are perplexed even as we watch, riveted with fear of what tomorrow will bring.  Whether or not we can survive depends to a large degree on how we see the Real, as Jacques Lacan understood the term, in a world we all live in and are supposed to share and share alike.  For all one knows, the time has come to galvanize ourselves into doing the right thing: take better care of the planet instead of setting out to desperately looking for others in space.  The futility of the 2020-US launch in Florida at a time such as the one we are in, a time when we are badly in need of all the efforts to defeat the virus, says it all.  It is sheer folly to embark on such a space mission.  No surprise, though, because TRUMP MURDER INC. hasn’t a care in the world, as witness its recent move to give the green light to hunters in Alaska natural reserve to shoot bears and wolves and their cubs and pups respectively while they are resting in their dens.  If this conduct is not criminal, what is?

In the days of the pandemic, we finally find out that we are agonizingly, madly, shamelessly social beings who cannot live in isolation no matter how hard we try.  Simple, is it not?  In this respect, what we call touch has been ruptured once and for all.  Hereafter, we may have to do away with contiguity altogether.  From now on, we are loathe to cling to our affected ways of doing the things we used to do—things like hugging, tickling, kissing.  We long for human contact because it gives us a sense of belonging, but we fear we may never engage in an embrace.  The proximity we all hunger for is the appeasing one—a pat on the shoulder, a cuddle, a hand shake.  We cannot touch our own faces let alone be in proximity to one another.  The times when we were able to adjust our glasses over the nose bridge, rub the corner of our eyes, get rid of a tickle in our ears, nibble on our nails, feel the red blotch on our faces, preen ourselves in front of mirrors, twist the locks of our hair or kiss so full on the lips, may be gone forever.  Like our cousins, the monkeys, we spend a lot of time touching our faces, except that they apparently micro-itch less than we do.  Is it a matter of reflex?  Maybe.  After all, we are seldom aware that we are touching ourselves.  Wearing a mask can reduce or put an end to the habit we are born with.  How can we then express what Jean-Luc Nancy aptly called “joy/the trouble of a touch of oneself?”  How can we “. . . remain oneself, or a be-coming oneself without going back to oneself”?)  Nancy goes so far as to ponder the very idea of writing, which has an intimate relationship to touch.

The mysterious concept of touch, which does nothing less than breathe life into us, assumes another twist when we consider the death of touch in those who live alone.  “Most people,” Kory Floyd writes, “used to a certain amount of touch, are suddenly without it.  Through an evolutionary lens, if we consider how dangerous it once was to be shunned or otherwise separated from the pack, it makes sense that touch-deprivation would register as a threat.”  Correct, in that some of us may even forget how it feels to come together.  Perhaps that is why we flail around.  During the lockdown, we noticed that people screen-kiss their beloved ones; others go so far as to pat their dogs while mumbling: “When the pandemic is over and we’re safe, we’ll touch our fellow men and women again.”  In the absence of their beloved ones, some of us are hugging all sorts of contraptions during what has been dubbed “hug time”—a gathering of sorts.

The conjunction of a sense of loneliness with a sense of loss results in desperation.  Notice how the poet Elisa Díaz Castelo feels about touch: “Yesterday I held my right hand with my left.  I was trying to remember what it’s like to be touched because I fear I might forget.”  Touch is but the ancilla of life, we might add.  Touch is also the first emotionally meaningful sense to appear when we are born and the last to go when we die.  “The new born understands touch much better than he understands sight or sound,” Gothard perceptively observes.  “The elderly lose their vision, their hearing, their balance.  But they don’t lose touch.”  True, insofar as people who are about to pass away are always at peace when we hold their hands. Among the guardian spirits of the SARS-CoV-2 are the first and last responders who provide that very assistance when families of the deceased are not permitted near the death beds.  Such chutzpah has an antecedent: “During the plague of Antonine, which may have killed 5-10 million people between 165 and 180 CE,” John Kelly reminds us, “early Christians rushed to, not away from, the plague-stricken.  They believed in hands-on healing as a noble duty that would earn them ascendance to heaven.”  Most of the time, they stood for a moment quite still and self-composed, thinking about the last touch they performed, the “mobile caress,” to cite Jean-Luc Nancy.  Of course, in their old-fashioned, old-world way, the whole point had to do with that loving cuddle because it was their lottery ticket to paradise.

For those of us who have not contracted the illness, we turn to fantasy to find comfort.  The elderly who recover from the virus and are taken home must live with zero average hugs as long as the lockdown continues.  They may even curl up in bed with a pillow.  Personally, the last time I held my mother-in-law was in that infamous month of March when we were introduced to a new strange lingua: Covid-19, Wuhan, self-isolation, testing, mitigation, N95, lockdown, face mask, physical distancing, hand-washing, respiratory etiquette, temperature screening, droplets, protective barriers, hand sanitizers, face shields, to name but a few of the strict protocols we have had to contend with.  As a result, we cannot suffer withdrawal a moment longer.  Our rebellion against seclusion may have something to do with “social touch [which] stimulates the release of opioids and oxytocin in the brain,” Katalin Gothard writes.  In the absence of touch, the brain hungers for oxytocin.  We faint not only from lack of food but also from lack of touch.  It is like a true companion we compose with on a daily basis.  This is not true for everyone, of course.  A case in point: “In Chile, by cultural norm, women have to greet people with a kiss on the cheek,” Monse Sepulveda points out.  “This is often quite uncomfortable if the man gives us a bad vibe or we have a weird history with him.  But now, we don’t have to kiss anyone!  I’ve talked about it with many women jokingly, but in all seriousness, it’s quite a relief.”  If anything, what Spulveda says saddens us in that we are supposed to comfort not abuse one another.

The result is that we have developed an aversion to touch in general.  We ought perhaps to carry a sign around our necks that says “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” or “HANDS OFF.”  We are in what Arudhati Roy shrewdly named the “era of touchlessness, in which the very bodies of one class are seen as a biohazard to another.”  Of course, Roy has in mind the poor and the dispossessed who have been marginalized and pushed aside and degraded.  They have been in the path of the tornado.  Still, the calamity has turned all of us into a soccer ball we must not touch with our hands.  We must also steer clear of being intimate, if not, we run the risk of becoming infected with the virus.  The following signs, which tell us to be aware of the contagion, have been sighted in different areas.  “Avoid being close to the person standing behind or in front of you,” “Please, do not touch anything upon entrance,” even “Do not lay a finger on anything you see.”  Such warnings remind us of No Exit (Huis Clos), which Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in 1943.  The play represents three characters—Garcin, Estelle, and Inez in purgatory, which really is a drawing room. We see them on stage grappling with what constitutes sin, which led them to hell, and what sort of punishment they deserve.  They quickly realize that there is no tormentor, no executioner.  No abyss.  It is just the three of them entrapped by their fate.  It is the other characters on stage who are the punishment, as it were.  “So this is hell,” one of them intones.  “I’d never have believed it. . . .   HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!” The complete version of the citation serves as an example of Sartre’s stand as an existentialist thinker.

No Exit could have been written today.  It is a telling sign of the half a life we lead as we struggle to overcome the virus.  That our little fingers are into everything is a thing of the past.  This is odd because we are fundamentally tactile: to be in touch with our fellow humans is a need, a source of well-being.  As to how do we manage our being in the world now, we must behave like a skilled watchmaker who is adept at performing every task with clinical precision.  And if in the past we used to moan about normal life, now our fear is that we may never get it back.  Our weakness is that we believed all along that we were invincible, which we are not.  As a matter of fact, we stand near the edge of the precipice as the self-isolation begins to weigh us down while time hangs heavy on our hands.  Concurrently, what saddens us today is the degree to which we have become blinded by our own insights.  Those of us who have always fought tooth and nail for a clean environment must feel let down because what the pandemic has shown is that the bark is coming away from the trunk and with it goes our humanity, our soul.  Today more than ever, we need a global response to the crisis; a radical agenda that takes into account the change that is coming.  We must strive for a born-again world, what Roy calls with consummate skill “a carefully drawn up ledger of accountability,” a new revolution whose intention, and indeed method, heralds a new beginning, one that is desperately human and desperately ministering to the planet.  After all, the virus has changed everything: from the way we live to the way we die.  For the moment, we must honor from scratch a living creature, greet her and hug her and recognize her.  That creature is Mother Earth.  And to hail her, in a manner of speaking, while being tactful—to touch without touching her—we dare to dream and, in doing so, we must not gamble away her and our future.  For to do so will be detrimental to both of us.  Do we want to go down that path?  I doubt it.  It will not be easy but we must try and try again and try we will.  And if, by some chance, we fail, I hope we will fail better.

Mustapha Marrouchi is a writer on a wide range of topics including literature, politics, cultural criticism, and Islamic issues. He is the author of half a dozen books, includingEdward Said at the Limits. He is finishing a novel tentatively titledIn Praise of Three Spotted Hyenasand an essay onMobbing in Academia.




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