The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 9
I think the real challenge with digitally mediated interactions, especially with strangers, isn't so much forgetting our own embodiment but that of others. If we're communicating with people we know, we at least have a memory of them and their bodies in time and space. But if we're communicating with strangers on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, we lack that memory. The database for facial expressions, voice inflections, characteristic gestures, etc is empty. Their typed words that appear on the screen before us, then, become the only data that we can respond to. The words easily "become" the person. Disembodiment applies not to us but to our experience of the words in a post or a comment or a tweet. I guess that's what emboldens or enables people to type the most insane things at one another. Video (like Zoom), on the other hand, can help us overcome that forgetfulness of a stranger's embodiment, as those of us who can see are able to visualize the faces and bodies of the ones we're speaking to.
I’d say this is something, yes. (Is that the right way to respond to the question?) I’m glad for your long writing, but I also really appreciate short reflections like this one. Thank you.
Yes, it is something, and it lands right on the things I have been dealing with and was talking with others about today. Your long pieces are real work to attend to and think through; the audio helps with that. Shorter pieces can carry along smaller chunks of ideation maybe not fully digested yet, but then we can possibly help you. This is more interesting and maybe more honest than trying to always be the dispenser of finished wisdom products to consumers who need a fully processed and shrinkwrapped package delivered to them. "Make us think" is what we want or should want, so letting us think more with you is one way to do that. Not too much, not too messy, but just a little workshop time.
As to the topic at hand, it lands on me as I Zoomed for the first time with people I've never met (or just one for a few hours) but have known for 22 years and carried on long correspondences over that tie with a shared writing/thinking internet project bringing us together online in the early years. And add to that one new deep friend, I think, also connecting because of common experiences, loves, concerns, books, ideas... And among the newer online-only friends like this, we are suffering griefs and losses, exchanging creative writing, risking openness and intrusion. Because it is not embodied I have not been able to assign these relationships a reality or authenticity I really can't give to most I have in my embodied life, which under covid and in a shattered/shattering community and culture offers very little even to the senses but obstruction of the natural world and its small graces. Even locally, locked in by pandemic the deeper relations go online and circle around poetry and pain. I find myself needing to bring description and reminders to others of embodied life and stories so they know and we can have that in common. This is not great, but it is not nothing.
I am reminded of David Abram pointing out the animistic faith of oral cultures underlying and retained in our alphabetic technologies of literacy. Trees may not talk to us but texts do. I find, like Illich, that I cannot look into other faces on Zoom meaningfully when there are more than two of us there because I cannot know if/when we are looking into each others' eyes. I cannot see myself reflected in the other, rather than in the mirror. So I listen to voices, just as I do when I read — I hear your voice in my mind as I read your words now. The more I know of your life, the more I may imagine your voice embodied.
So, the voices of those who have invested care in the words they share can touch. Somehow! We can have a rich presence. And yet there is still a great loneliness in it. Perhaps that is a good and honest ache. As neighbours and residents of the same city we often fail to make our visits but do not miss the person we are not with for months and even years because we could visit, or we call or briefly run into each other. But this too is disembodied in a way. We are not attending, connecting, being present together. We are preoccupied and maybe fail to notice another's loneliness or needs. We hold the possibility of visits in mind but long ago lost the time, attention, and etiquette of the pilgrimage and journey or the extended stay. Family vacations and holidays are lampooned for their fraught and all too common overdetermined collapse. Long ago we were losing the houses of hospitality, and the open place at the table with the candle lit for the absent one so that the circle may remain open.
I think you’re right about how we don’t feel embodied spending time in digital culture. But I would intuitively come to a partly opposing theory which is something like, actually embodiedness is not just a sense of frailty but actually a sense of agency and a sense of being within time. having one’s own proportionate sense of small power and sovereignty over your own mind. I think when people are online, they may do awful things, but I wonder if rather than being swept up in a sense of self-sufficiency (as you might be suggesting in that last sentence), we’re actually acting from a place of deep insufficiency-gone-unacknowledged. People are more reactive and performative. Sometimes more intensely aware of how socially dependent they are on others (even if only on a subconscious level, even if only looking for superficial “likes”). Whereas the body holds the present moment, time passing, independence in terms of not being a part of a system of reactive voices but instead with agency to make any decision or simply be in the present moment. There’s a reason why mindful meditation often starts with paying attention to the breath. For sure recognition of frailty is part of it, but even that comes with the opportunity to care for oneself and others, so I think this awareness of frailty actually also (paradoxically) offers a kind of mental fortitude.
I've recently (since Tuesday, May 18) started walking outside barefoot when I feel as though I'm forgetting my body. I wonder if part of the reason we are prone to this forgetting is because our touch sensations are underdeveloped. Wearing comfortable shoes flattens all feeling in our feet to one sensation. So, one way of "rebelling" against disembodiment for me is to walk barefoot and experience different textures underneath me.
In much of society, school not least, we're trained to understand ourselves as receptacles for knowledge, for whom forgetting or misapprehension is a failure. But as my life has filled up with busyness in recent years, I've been trying to come to terms with what sometimes feels like the self-parody of my education. The books on my shelf which I've read are starting to resemble the ones I haven't, and I sometimes I doubt whether they taught me anything.
This disembodied model of knowing makes the failure of memory seems personal rather than simply how the human body functions. I persistently assume learning means knowing, attributing knowledge and understanding to my character, regardless of time spent in the constant practice of reading and thinking. Then, characteristically, I have to constantly relearn the lesson that routine and ritual undergird identity, that patterns of attention train patterns in what tends to occur to me, etc.
I think it's great to plant a flag here for deeper dives. It's a rich topic, which you can take in a lot of directions. It occurs to me that one downside of the newsletter as compared to the blog is the ability to index big subjects like embodiment, which you've written about or alluded to in many other pieces. Of course, it's likewise nice to focus on one piece at a time without the pressure of dozens of linked references looming behind it. I still have your last entry in mind: endless information fosters anxiety over the pressure toward an ever-elusive comprehensiveness.
A very interesting piece and Judy's additional comments good too. The only little thing I can think to add is Video like zoom does not yet include the sense of smell, touch, not really, eg
the scent of flowers, as a boy I lived on a farm, eventhough I was not suited to the country, the contact with the natural world was good. People were often in a natural landscape. there was mystery to in the bush, untamed land.