Connective Tissues

Pandemics debunk the notion of seamless automation

I have learned the location of each of my own organs. I can feel them inside, visualize them in my mind. Veins and tendons, and neurons and sinuses too, and all the interstices and tissues in between. The chain of small muscles that garland my ribcage, the swell and tug of my diaphragm. The temperature and consistency of all the vital ichors and humours that operate the frame of myself. Finding out the precise shape and curve of all the parts of my own body has been my quarantine project. My proprioception, my understanding of the arrangement of my own body, is overclocked by the anxiety of monitoring for symptoms and given rein by solitude. It is now my most acute sense. I know what I am, where I am in space and time, every waking second, and it is excruciating.

In his “Ten Premises for A Pandemic,” artist and theorist Ian Alan Paul writes, “a pandemic isn’t a collection of viruses, but is a social relation among people, mediated by viruses.” Paul outlines the responsibilities and new forms of awareness and solidarity that the global coronavirus pandemic demands of those who would resist capitalism and seek radical change in the wake of world historical upheaval. “[T]he pandemic doesn’t simply happen to us,” he writes, “but is instead something we partake in.” A pandemic is a social relation between people, but also between things and networks. The virus mediates a dense and complex system of bodies and technologies, and in the process, it illuminates the critical seams in the mythic seamless web so we can sense their location and vulnerability as we do the systems of our own bodies. The applications and services — food and medicine delivery, instantaneous visual connection to far away loved ones, access to one’s work outside the office — that make quarantine sustainable for some are stitched together by the living bodies of others. The whole system is as vulnerable to the virus as any one body.

The virus activates the bodily metaphor of community because it maps out the vital systems of our world with a mortal clarity

I wash my hands. But first, I douse my phone in rubbing alcohol. I rest it in the folds of my quilt, close to my face, and look at the internet. I read about other people’s proprioception. They are coughing, they say. They wonder if their throat feels tight because of the virus or because of anxiety about the virus. My throat feels tight. Some people take their own temperature every hour, and make a note of any errant histamine response or stray firing of a pain receptor. People who are sick post long Twitter threads about their symptoms and the timing of each so others may train their own senses to know what is coming. I touch my face, to feel if it is hot.

I go on long walks alone, projecting a bubble of social distance out around me. I cross the street or retreat into driveways to avoid others on the sidewalk. The streets are always less empty than I expect, and I wonder where people are going. I drift around my tiny apartment, making food and losing my appetite. I calculate the nutritional value of the things on my refrigerator shelves. I walk to a friend’s house to borrow some baking powder, and I shrink away from her when she comes to the porch. I wonder what would happen if my plumbing or electricity failed. Would I permit someone to come into my home to service a broken water heater? Would I cry if they did? What if there was a gas leak?

I want to order takeout, not least because I’ve run out of fresh vegetables. On Instagram, local restaurants plead with followers to keep them alive. But the thought of spraying down each of the containers with bleach before I can open them, or the awkward scuffle at the doorstep with a delivery driver over how to make the handoff, feels too grim. On Twitter, people post about food, not with the banality of everyday documentation, but with a trembling urgency. We long for others to witness our bodies, to know that they are being kept whole and nourished. People post about the agonizing tension of going to the grocery store, how long they put it off, what was left on the shelves, how they cleaned everything they brought home. People post about hacks, about quick tips and tricks for cooking at home, about their gardens, about the seeds they sprout on windowsills or fire escapes.

I watch a baseball game from the past, streaming live as though it were really happening somewhere. On Twitter someone says that the sight of the crowd makes her anxious. I close my eyes and listen to the rumble and cheer. I wonder how long it will be before I can be in a crowd and not feel anxious. Will I be able to go to a real baseball game and feel only my own body, look around at the stands without seeing vectors and pathways of disease? How long will the new growth of my senses last, what will it take to prune it back?

The virus activates the bodily metaphor of community and society because it maps out the vital systems of our world with an inescapable mortal clarity. Just as I endlessly inventory my own body for symptoms, we are all learning to extend that heightened proprioception to the world around us. Your phone can be just as much a vector as your own hands, and so in some sense it is practical to consider them part of the same body. The person who delivers your takeout or your Amazon box is meshed into a network of people and objects that we must, as a matter of safety, assume are all connected by the invisible nervous fibers of infection. In a crowded grocery store we can see like traces of light each touch and transfer, stretching back into the fragility of the supply chain itself. Its circulatory system is made of individuals like vulnerable cells, assembling on factory floors and harvesting vegetables, driving trucks and unloading trailers and stocking shelves.

Our solidarity with others must also be proprioceptive, able to see the system as an extension of ourselves

There is a potential for irony — or cynicism — in observing that the technological infrastructures that have long aroused fears of isolation and alienation are now those that we cling to in order to keep us safe and connected to each other. Where living large parts of our lives online was so recently still being offered as the reason for social decay, we now fold those so-called second lives into our primary personality, and the devices through which we access them are fused to our once-social bodies. The decay is not in changed forms of connection, but in the callousness with which we have treated the people who make them possible. The virus shows us how we are fused to other bodies as well. Paul writes that we must “refuse to curtail our thinking to how each of our individual lives may be particularly impacted by the virus and to begin to contemplate the potential we collectively share to change the course of the pandemic as well as to shape the new society that emerges from it.”

We in quarantine experience the extension and sharpening of our proprioception both as a matter of corporeal knowledge, and a corporealization of our knowledge of the world. And this new sense has radical possibilities. Our quarantine projects — feeding ourselves, rediscovering the wonder of growing things, learning languages, connecting with far away friends, understanding our own locality in new ways — are part of this larger sensory project of knowing the world. Of knowing its connective tissues, its joints and contacts, places of smooth or grinding contact and transfer, its hidden interstitial structures and membranes. And the place of all of the hidden people that create the image of the seamless web within this body. Our solidarity with others must also be proprioceptive, able to see the system as an extension of ourselves, and imagine it changed.

In the intimate visualization of the body of the world, the knowledge of the location and function and assailability of its organs and members, the lie is ultimately given to the seamless interconnected life that technology promises us. The seams are people — laboring under threat of infection for wages that amount to deprivation, long hidden away in the viscera of a body skinned in sleek convenience. In the image we must now construct of our world, they are brightly lit by the trace of the virus. Here are the spaces for action and intervention, gaps that can only be bridged by understanding and solidarity and shared humanity. We must know what and where we are, in space and time, at all waking moments. And the knowledge, as it should be, is unbearable.

Anna Reser is a historian of technology and the editor of Lady Science.