Within the body of the text: exploring COVID-19’s silent spring

“and the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.”

Leviticus 14:37, The Bible

I was required to watch a 2018 training video this week. To foster buy-in, it featured a short video message from our Vice-Chancellor, who addressed the camera whilst standing in the midst of our campus’ busy comings and goings. This background scene of a corridor full of staff and students was enthralling, for it was both familiar and strange. Last year I wrote here about being bent back into shape every Autumn: my  anticipation of the – inevitable as it then seemed – re-filling of the same campus space every September, and of the ritualised annual bodily adaptation that moving around the campus then entails. The eternal return of that scene now seems far from this Autumn’s likely experience. In the video, the passing bodies tracing their paths with private purpose, and there was a hum. That low-level cacophony that you hear wherever there are multiple, associated voices present in a scene. It was the complexity of that noise that got me most, for it almost felt overwhelming, too complex. That sound of the crowd has disappeared from our worlds, just as that density of bodies and multiplicity of space use has been intentionally edited out in the circumstances of COVID-19. In another purpose Rachel Carson summoned up the spectre (via pesticides) of a “silent spring” bereft of wild animals. Our silent spring was the product of an unprecedented mass human withdrawal from public spaces.

The strange – shifted-sideways – normative world into which we tumbled so suddenly in March 2020, is starting to feel like it’s not going away anytime soon. The crisis’ exceptional focus on cautiously self-managing bodily proximity has ushered in what feels like a whole new art of living: an elaborate but ubiquitous  cautious choreography of bodily movement and positioning, a new art-of-living resting upon a complex meld of emergency laws, spatialised morality, and (as politicians would have us believe, recourse to ‘common sense’). These moment-by-moment choreographies of caution, are presently informed by fairly vague rule structures. There simply hasn’t been time to spell everything out, or to devise enforcement apparatuses. Perhaps there are emerging signs now that bureaucratic fine-detailing is starting to take place – for instance my employer has recently issued its ‘return to work’ manual. It seeks to re-train me in how to walk to a workstation, how to use a corridor, how to queue at a reception desk. NASA instructions for a spacewalk are probably less detailed. My – currently abandoned – workplace is now, so photographs show me, marked out in an array of colours, forward-ghosting the desired bodily movements and repose of Autumnal workers. But until we return to such inscripted places, we are charged with the responsibility of self-policing, of actively carrying the general sentiment and objective of caution and distance around with us.

I’ve started to think about this suddenly strangely-explicit self-policing of bodily deportment. For two reasons. First, because my body, like everyone else’s, is caught up in this new way of being. But also, secondly, because is strangely chimes with the three ways in which I’ve seen my own published work being referenced and used in recent scholarship. Each of these references draws out – and extends – comments I’ve made about the link between bodies and the lived reality of laws (or equivalent normative codes).

Scholarship focussing upon embodiment – the fact that we (humans) have bodies and are inescapably fleshy matter embedded in the material world – is nothing new, and social theory has been widely embracing this trend for the last decade or so. The origins of this lie in a broadly ecological sentiment, an intentional corrective to elevation of ‘the human’ to a state above, beyond and (somehow) disconnected from the grubbly world of the plants, protein and photosynthesis that sustains us.

In 2015 I set out to write an essay exploring – and I thought endorsing – a post-humanist mindset for an edited collection entitled Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). I offered an abstract for an essay playfully styled “Thinking Like A Brick: Posthumanism and Building Materials”. But as I started to write the essay, I found it increasingly hard to abandon humanism. My literature review took me towards writers who seemed deeply misanthropic, wedded to a deep sense of collective human self-loathing. Alongside these overly-dark, pessimistic folk, I came across others who seemed impossibly light. For these writing of the world without humans was liberating, for it would let the non-human speak. But the framing of the book forced me to question the premise – how could education be posthuman at any extreme, human-rejecting level? I concluded that it couldn’t and decided that a soft-posthumanism was the only variant that could meaningfully speak to education. And in doing so I appropriated work looking at the interconnection between human bodies and the matter that they work with. Thereby I came to building materials – to bricks, concrete and stone and to the ways in which they embody the actions and the affects of the humans who helped to create them. It was in this spirit that I found my essay recently cited in an article by Beth Cullen examining the intertwined relationship of landscape, lifestyles and climate in the production of Bangladeshi bricks (Cullen 2020). Cullen quotes me thus, in order to show that it is not just clay that is changed through the making of bricks, but also the labourers too, for “their bodies [are] moulded to the daily tasks, their senses attuned to the subtle ‘voices’ of the machines and matter they are working with” (Bennett 2016, 72).

My next citation returns us to the theme of the COVID-19 crisis, but it connects to this embeddedness – that we are of the world, and that we are walking, talking co-productions with other environmental elements. And here we move from clay, bricks and sunshine to, public health laws and start to look at the way in which we – individually and collectively – carry the law with us: how and we carry a sense of the law’s purpose and apply it to the situations that we face. Thus, in a recent article by Miriam Tedeschi’s (2020) we are shown how her experience of travelling between Italy (at a time of high COVID-19 infection) to Finland (a country then with a far lesser legal apparatus for, or sensibilities of deportment and infection control). Tedeschi talks of how her journey between the two milieu made her realise how the focus upon COVID-19 in Italy had written itself into her sense of being – how she felt, acted, regarded and positioned her body in space. This was hard to perceive when in Italy but became all too apparent when she arrived in Finland. To make her point, Tedeschi draws from another of my writings – an article on ‘legal psychogeography’ published in 2019 and my call for a broadening of legal geography so as to achieve “a fully holistic study of the co-constitution of law and space, one that gives proper regard to the influence of the affective geographies of matter” (Bennett, 2019: 1). Tedeschi’s short paper gives a great illustration of what I was thinking of here in terms of sketching a legal psychogeography – for she shows how her sense of normative confusion upon arrival in Finland is a function of her heightened sense of her own body, its temperature, her breathing rate and all other symptomology of COVID-19, as intertwined with her recently learned (in Italy) expectations of bio-political surveillance and bodily distancing. In short, she felt that she should perform and present her body in space in the ways she had learned in Italy – but in Finland this no-longer fitted the spatio-legal milieu that she found herself in. Thus – she realised – she had transported the Italian normativity with her, she was a vector, a carried of that internalised Italian way of being. She was an embodied, mobile object carrying both Italian legal sensibilities and (potentially) Italian-sourced infective organisms.

Sticking with this sense of the body as a vector of law, the third citation is in an article recently published by Joshua David Michael Shaw, which purports to address the ‘legal fiction of death’. Shaw’s argument is not a denial of the reality of non-living, but rather an exploration of the ways in which death as a definitive legal category is a complex hybrid that uneasily bridges law’s quest for categorical certainty and the messy materiality of living (and dying) as a process. Thus, unlike Tedeschi’s sense of a conscious body carrying law as a sensibility, Shaw’s concern is with the ways in which disorderly materiality – the chaos of the body – frustrates attempts by others to impose legal neatness and certainty upon any body. Like Tedeschi, Shaw invokes my sketch of a legal psychogeography, as a way of accounting for “a necessary relation between the resulting spatial order and materiality of bodies that already and always threaten to leak outside its bounds” (Shaw 2020, n.p.) seeing my call for a widening of legal geography to embrace the material-affective as encompassing his concern to show how space and matter must be given their full due in any attempt to account  for law’s operations.

And so, we end, in keeping with our present hyper-awareness of our not-fully-knowable-bodies and our not-fully-knowable-but-nonetheless-felt normativities relating to them, with further images to add to my anxious premonitions of what our campus will be like this Autumn: of sweaty bodies working clay awkwardly under the weight of harsh sun or rain; a nervously sweaty traveller from Italy approaching the uncertainties of border control in Finland; and of unruly, leaky bodies refusing to conform to the legal neatness of categories of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.  These accompanying images rise up out of textual reapplications of my words, written in a previous era, but now with an added salience amidst a heightened sense of embodiment, and the cautiousness of our present spatial interrelations. And all of the images give us a deeper appreciation of that sense that we are in the world, affected by surrounding entities from which we can never fully hide, and whether viruses or normative sensibilities, which we then absorb into ourselves, carry around with us and which each make us feel and act in distinctive ways.

References

Bennett, Luke (2016) ‘Thinking like a brick: posthumanism and building materials’ in Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes (eds) Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 58-74.

Bennett, Luke (2018) ‘Towards a legal psychogeography: pragmatism, affective-materialism and the spatio-legal’. Revue Géographique de l’Est 58(1–2): 1–16.

Cullen, Beth (2020) ‘Constellations of weathering: following the meteorological mobilities of Bangla bricks’ Mobilities DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1759929

Shaw, Joshua David Michael (2020) ‘The spatio-legal production of bodies through the legal fiction of death’, Law and Critique DOI: 10.1007/s10978-020-09269-5

Tedeschi, Miriam (2020) ‘The body and the law across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Dialogues in Human Geography,1-4DOI: 10.1177/2043820620934234

Image Reference:

Author’s own: Dale Dyke reservoir, June 2020.

About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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