:: Article

The Negative Dialectics of Social Distancing

By Will Daddario.

Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay

When I introduce dialectics to undergraduate students, I do so through the words of Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin:

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. (Thesis VII)

Dialectics is a big word with a long history, and it can often silence a room of students because nobody wants to use it incorrectly. Benjamin’s quotation, however, lays a direct path into the working of the dialectic, as it was practiced by him, his friend Theodor W. Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt School in the first part of the 20th century.

After talking about Benjamin’s words for a little bit, at least one student will point to the founding document of the United States as an exemplary instance of such a dialectical object. The U.S. Constitution is the highwater mark of freedom and one of the most visible historical traces of the slavery on which the U.S. was built. With that document, a young nation birthed itself discursively while also declaring each black person to be equal to three-fifths of a (white) person. “We the people,” then, is a perfectly dialectical phrase, insofar as it imagines a free totality of Americans while, in the same breath, ensuring that the freedom of some is determined by the unfreedom of others. Freedom and its opposite coexist in, and indeed constitute, one and the same document.

To expand our understanding of the word “document” to include objects other than written texts, I usually offer the example of the flag flying at half-mast. The flag is a sort of document insofar as it carries within it the mytho-historical narrative of the country’s birth. In the United States of America, that narrative is written in stars and stripes. To decode the narrative I ask, “When do people decide to fly the flag half-way up the pole?” And most students know that it occurs when a tragedy takes place. “But when is a sizable tragedy not taking place?”, I continue. “Who is making the call about which tragedies equate to ‘sizable tragedies’? If we really think about it, wouldn’t every day bring a reason to fly the flag at half-mast?” When most students start nodding to this somewhat rhetorical question, I continue to the tricky part.

The dialectic of tragedy embedded within the document of the flag shows itself, I suggest, not when it flies at half-mast but, rather, every time the flag flies all the way up the pole. The only time it is ever really at half-mast, i.e., the only time a true tragedy is occurring, is when the flag is at full-mast, insofar as the top of the flagpole is an empty boast. The flag’s holes begin to show when it flaps highest and most proudly in the wind. The unnamed tragedies of the lowliest of U.S. citizens, those whose lands are destroyed through corporate pollution: these tragedies are almost always omitted by the symbolic gesture of flying a flag at half-mast, and yet we can hear them all ring out silently through their active exclusion from the everyday consciousness of most who pledge their allegiance to the stars and stripes.

Benjamin’s thinking, I would argue, and the thinking I’m exercising here, is actually engaged in negative dialectics, which is an even more foreign expression to most people. Whereas the practice of dialectical thinking had, throughout the nineteenth century, been utilized to imagine Wholeness and Truth through philosophical reasoning that moves between the identity and the opposition inherent within concepts, Benjamin, and Adorno after him, called the bluff. There is no smooth synthesis, no Whole or unalloyed Truth, of which to speak or think. “The whole is the untrue” (Das Ganze ist das Unwahre), as Adorno said in his Minima Moralia. In the hands of the Frankfurt School, dialectics wasn’t used to reach the apex of intellectual reason. On the contrary, dialectical thought was the practice through which the cracks of reason would begin to show most clearly.

Negative dialectics arrives at an aporia or waylessness of—and inside—thought instead of a conclusive claim about the identity of concepts and objects. Benjamin’s quotation about civilization shows negative dialectics at work. “Civilization” and “Barbarism” are not simply opposites for Benjamin. Those two things do not occupy the positions of Thesis and Antithesis. Barbarism—which, most simply, is otherness, and comes from the Ancient Greeks who used the term to name everybody who didn’t speak Greek (βάρβαροι)—lies at the heart of Civilization. Negative dialectical thinking exposes the internal straining of this and indeed any given concept, object, document (understood broadly), or symbol. This straining, in turn, reveals a yawn within each concept or object, a moment when a thing strains against itself. Indeed, each concept, object, document, and symbol is an incomplete and ongoing process motivated by this internal straining.

Today, in the middle of the global pandemic of COVID-19, we find another opportunity for negative dialectical thinking in the phrase “social distancing.” Offered as a recommendation for how best to hinder the spread of the virus, social distancing is, on the surface, a simple synonym of avoidance, isolation, or quarantining. If we, as individuals, limit our exposure to other bodies, then the chances of spreading the virus will decrease. Seems simple enough. But, as with so many phrases, this one has a lot lurking beneath the surface. Negative dialectical thinking plumbs the depths.

You might wonder why we would bother doing this. Doesn’t “Social Distancing” mean nothing more or less than “keep a safe distance”? Yes and no. It is hard to argue with the medical logic behind the recommendation. But: What the phrase means semantically and what it connotes (epistemologically) are different matters. Words do things. Language makes the world. While there is no clear sign that people, generally, care greatly about the grammar, syntax, or word choice of the sentences that come out of their mouths, Language (i.e., the larger social, historical, and cognitive structure of language) functions beyond the realm of what we say or what we think we mean we say when we speak. Words not only perform actions and report on events that have taken place; they also carry history within them (history of which we are usually unconscious). In the case of “Social Distancing,” there is a historical lesson that we can unpack without too much effort, and the unpacking leads to several questions we would all do well to ask ourselves as we, hopefully, recover from this initial outbreak of the Coronavirus and, perhaps more importantly, learn from the experience.

The trailhead into the lesson reveals itself not so much in the words themselves but in the conditions of the phrase’s creation, that is, in the spread of the virus. The world, as has been said for decades, is a global village. There may be many miles separating continents, but airplane travel eradicates the mileage for those who have the financial capital to buy tickets. Even if you don’t fly or travel around the world, you still come in contact with people who do or products made elsewhere, and therefore you are always in some way engaged in the commerce of the global village. The reason the virus spread so quickly is because we live in a world in which people are entangled together in ways not always visible to the eye. As germs infect us without our knowledge, so too does the global “society” take shape whether we reflect on this trans-national society or not.

A “friend” of mine on Facebook made this global, social interconnection visible through a disturbing joke. He wrote: “Before you pop that bubble wrap, remember that the air inside came from China.” The joke has two levels, both of which are not funny so much as they are unnerving. First, so many products come from China. Even if we stopped all flights between our countries, we still import goods by cargo ship and stock store shelves with those goods. China’s presence is inextricable from both the U.S. economy and the daily life of most Americans. The joke causes a laugh because it tells us something we already know but don’t want to admit during this pandemic; namely, we can’t simply wash China, or any other place, off our hands. Second, the joke magnifies those tiny little bubble wrap dots in our minds and helps us imagine the phenomenological event of inhaling air that factory workers on the other side of the world exhaled some days or weeks ago. On this level, the joke points to the fact that we all breathe the same air, a fact that might lead toward fantasies of spiritual, global harmony were it not for the fact that this shared air is precisely what carries the virus from one person to another. (Thinking dialectically, however, we might want to consider how global harmony would mean embracing each other’s illnesses as though they were our own…since they are.)

What this joke about bubble wrap, the context around the spread of the virus, and the phrase “social distancing” all collectively prepare us for is the question of whether or not it is even possible to distance ourselves from the social world in which we take part. “Social Distancing” becomes a farcical act of attempting to separate ourselves from ourselves. You can stand six feet apart from a stranger as you pass on the street, but those six feet are as easily nullified by the movements of microbes as those miles between the U.S. and China are nullified by air travel and the merchandise of the Dollar Store. True social distancing is not possible.

Of course, proceeding dialectically, we may wonder whether the opposite is more true. It isn’t a matter of not being able to distance ourselves from the social world in which we constantly take part? Rather, “distance” is a core attribute of our sociality. How? Think about that phrase, “global village.” The first internet modem my family ever purchased was part of an AOL start-up package called “The Global Village.” This was in the early 1990s, and yet, even then, the notion of an interconnected world was already a fungible tagline for what would become a giant tech corporation. As many cultural theorists went on to point out, the myth of the interconnected global village was accompanied by the extreme alienation of people’s labor around the world and the shrinking of individuals’ worldviews made possible by the curation of the Internet experience, which, ironically, was frequently touted as expanding people’s minds through access to information. Regarding labor, alienation and exploitation of work, we can think, for example, about outsourcing and the mining of metals required to build computer parts. The world’s poorest population are the most exploited while the perks of Internet technology are leveraged by middle-class Westerners. We see here the cornerstone of the dominant paradigm of power relations that have been in place since global colonization began. Regarding worldview, yes, access to information was enabled by the rise of the Internet, but that access is and always has been structured by algorithms that funnel attention to specific information based on browsing preferences.

All of which is to say that the notion of a “social” identity emerging from the global village is one necessarily based on, at best, an illusion of participation in the Whole, and, at worst, the economic, cultural, and ideological distances between people around the world maintained by Capitalism. As such, “social distancing” is a somewhat redundant term. To be part of sociality today is to acquiesce to the distance between people enabled by the technology that mediates our connectivity. Taken together with the farce outlined in the previous paragraph, we find ourselves facing quite a predicament. On the one hand, we cannot possibly distance ourselves from anything that we ourselves constitute (social distancing is not possible). On the other hand, that which we constitute is a disjunctive togetherness maintained through the appearance of global interconnection and the underlying reality of global inequality (social distancing is the only possibility).

What’s the lesson here? Surely it lies in the invitation to rethink what precisely “social” means. Of course distance is a requisite of sociality. If there was no distance between people, then there would be no multiplicity of people. The global society is not a single or monolithic entity. It is, rather, a multiplicity that comes together in the semblance of a whole. Just as sentences on a screen become legible thanks to the space between the letters and the words, so too does the social come into existence through the distance between the various nodes that make up society. At the same time, the distance between individuals, while material and tangible, is necessarily tended by specific technologies and ideologies. The virus, too, is only “foreign,” if we give over to the ideology of national boundaries that is tended by governments intent on maintaining control of economic supremacy through ownership or management of “natural resources.” The economy itself is the best evidence that national boundaries are illusory. There is, at the end of the day, nothing foreign, only people and places named as such for the purposes of control. Thus, as we go about maintaining six feet from strangers we ought to treat the space between us as a test in dispelling invisible ideologies.

Now we’re ready to return to the second half of the Benjamin quotation: “And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” To think about this, we can turn to an article in The Atlantic from July 4, 2018, titled, “The American Flag, Made in China.” The dialectical spiral begins to turn when we think of so-called patriots pledging allegiance to the flag and cursing foreign enemies like the Communist Chinese all the while maintaining ignorance of the fact that the flag they salute was made in China. It was made in China because it was cheaper to make in China, and it was cheaper because of economic inequality. The “transmission” of which Benjamin speaks is the slow boat from China that brings cartons of American flags to our shores for Americans to salute. “Transmission” also points to the physical space of the path cut across the ocean by the boat. The spatial dimension is important because it traces a line on the physical world as well as on our mental maps, thereby driving home the point that the dialectic of civilization is a tangible thing, a lived reality. The same point is driven home by the name of the news publication—The Atlantic—that reported on the Chinese-made U.S. flags. The Atlantic Ocean was, of course, the route of transmission across which slaves were brought from Africa to build the economic engine of the country that would eventually salute the U.S. Flag. We have here, then, an epicentre of dialectical thinking from which Benjamin’s words, U.S. History, and the current global health crisis emanate. “Transmission” is the ripple that spreads out from the epicentre.

Social media is also a source of transmission. The spread of mis- and dis-information across platforms like Facebook and Twitter form a parallel to the spread of the coronavirus itself, a fact underscored by the polysemy of the word “viral” which indicates both a source of terror and popular appeal. Each time we access the wider global community via social media, we must remember that the platform is not society itself. The platform mediates society, and the mediation comes at a cost. As I mentioned earlier, the glimpse of the whole we receive from our curated worldview on pages like Facebook is entirely illusory and in no way adequate to the size, scope, and multiplicity of the actual global society. At the same time, this “actual” global society is likely not accessible without the help of many technologies that provide access to parts of the world and certain strains of information that would otherwise remain sealed off. To participate in social media critically, then, we have to continue thinking about the distance that hides within the manufactured feeling of closeness that we sense online. Likewise, we have to recognize that distance as a necessary part of maintaining the multiplicity of the many.

In other words, we ought to consider the words of Matthew Goulish who recently wrote, “If distancing always affirms that which it distances, then social distancing affirms the social—my bond to my nearest neighbor, across the divide.” I agree, with the modest additional thought that the “social” (or socius, or society) affirmed by social distancing is a necessarily distanced sociality sewn together through multiple acts, some caring and some nefarious. For this reason, Goulish’s next question is extremely important: “In this zone of isolation, how do we gather?” How do we come together? How are we gathered together by various mediating platforms such as social media and political ideology? Is it possible to come together by maintaining distance? Of course it is, but the route to this disjunctive togetherness only reveals itself through concerted thought and creative practice. Fortunately for all of us, we now have more space and time to do this thinking and practicing.

Will Daddario is a scholar of theatre and performance. He is active in the global Performance Philosophy network as co-editor of a book series and online journal. With his wife, he is a grief worker and educational consultant for Inviting Abundance in Asheville, North Carolina. Relevant URLS: invitingabundance.net, willdaddario.com, performancephilosophy.org

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 26th, 2020.