Student Blogs VIII: Bodies

This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.

A Change in Perspective

Marit Schilling, MA Comparative Cultural Analysis (UvA)

Sometimes you turn something around and around until it becomes very strange to you. Things that weren’t really visible to me at first have become an extra layer on my view of society. I’ve become very aware of other people in the streets, while I used to try and ignore everyone else in the city to avoid being overwhelmed. Now when I walk down the street or through a park, I observe others way more, up until the point that other people have become something kind of different to me, which works quite estranging. When I see elderly people I take an extra big round around them, just to be sure and keep them safe from my potential virus holding body. I see clusters of people and think to myself: ah, they must be roommates, or I see two people holding hands and conclude that they’re in a relationship so it’s fine that they don’t keep a distance. My perspective on touch and proximity of people has changed. When I watch a film and people cuddle in it, or hang out in a bar, I notice myself thinking about how close they are and whether they are spreading viruses at that exact moment.

I’ve noticed I don’t see other humans only as people with histories, stories or feelings anymore, but that I actually see this extra layer now of clusters of shared bacteria/viruses (housemates and lovers), bodies that are at risk (elderly people) and people who seem like they don’t care about social distancing at all (mostly men between the age of 18 and 35, they’re not used to being at risk maybe and they might even be less at risk?). New materialism fits right into this train of thought I think. People have bodies that carry bacteria and organisms and viruses and are not above other species in this sense, so I do see humankind more as a species among other species now. Seeing such a sudden shift in the meaning of human bodies, I’ve started seeing a shift in perspective on human’s position in the ecological world as well.

Bodies Are A Threat

Joana Voss, RMA Critical Studies Art & Culture (VU)

Bodies are a threat. My body. Your body. That’s why we have to meet online. So that our bodies can’t conspire against us. Invade. Infect. Spread the virus. Without the body, the virus is nothing.

But not all bodies are equally threatening. Whom I was cued to perceive as a threat already before the epidemic, has become even more dangerous now. I caught myself reproducing this bias on one of my trips to what is perhaps the last relic of routine, the one thing we can’t do without.

Buying groceries is strange these days. You’re constantly reminded of your body being a threat, of other bodies being a threat. That’s why we have to each take our own shopping cart.

I was walking down the packet soup aisle when I saw the woman with her three little kids, struggling to pick up the mountain of instant noodles her daughter was busy modelling on the supermarket floor. The noodle packages didn’t abide by the confines of the 1,5-square meter box the personnel had carefully outlined with red tape. My instinct was to help the woman pick up all the noodles. I made a few steps towards her. Then the red tape reminded me. My body is a threat. Her body is a threat. Our bodies together are a threat. I didn’t help her. And that was helping everyone else I was telling myself. Helping not to spread the virus.   

Having typed my debit card pin on the machine with my sleeve covering my fingers, I left the shop. There was another body struggling on the entrance steps. The man with the long beard and dirty fingernails was staggering up the steps. He smelled like alcohol. Or did I just think that because he looked like he would smell of alcohol? I swerved. This man clearly needed help. Like the woman in the shop. Maybe more so. The red tape had to remind me that my body was not to touch hers. There was no red tape between me and the man to remind me. It was his appearance that screamed virus at me. I didn’t want to get near him. His body was a threat to me. Perhaps I would have perceived him as a threat before the epidemic. More likely, I wouldn’t have noticed him at all. We are culturally cued to overlook the homeless. To hear, smell, see selectively. We make sense of the world spatially. From the perspective of the human body. But as all bodies become reasons to cross the street, some feel still more so than others. The biases we were carrying before Corona are stiffening as fear and suspicion find breeding ground. And they run along the familiar lines of race and class.

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