Entering the House: Making Sense of COVID-19

Entering their houses, four voices – from anthropology, biology, psychology and philosophy – share surfaces of touch, cross-contaminating as the same themes appear in different ways

 

Imagine yourself back into the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ordinary things like crossing the threshold that demarcates outside from home have suddenly taken on a different tone. You are scrabbling to make sense of all that is asked of you at this moment; of daily routines suddenly overturned. In this context, we invite you to encounter four voices, reflectively entering their own house. We call them Montage, Invisibilities, Loops, and Berøringsflader [surfaces of touch]. They each speak from their position – between the personal, the academic and the dreamy – to you. They also speak in subtlety to each other. They are together apart as they enter their house, again and again and again.

 

ENTERING THE HOUSE: 1

MONTAGE. Anxiety. The outside. Virus. Chinese bat. Ski tourists sharing shots in Switzerland. Entering my house. My hand. Apartment entry. Door keys. Handle. Grabbing my daughter’s hand. Breath. Anxiety. Distance. The sound of a sneeze. Microbes. Holding my breath. Silent explosion. Heartbeat. Protection. Anxiety. Door opens. The inside. Door closes. How to go from here? Whose hands to wash first? If I wash my hands first, the children will have touched the walls. Some toys. The fridge. If I wash their hands first, I will have touched their jacket sleeves. My jacket zipper. No matter what, someone will touch the handle on the soap dispenser. Do I clean it? Is that where I break the chain? Separate. Divide. Space. Time. Information. Make sure stuff does not touch. Juxtapose. Create borders and patterns. Metrics and logical rhythms. Disrupt where needed. Something might happen, when objects are placed close to each other. Can we separate anything? If I use a dot. Won’t. My. Words. Still. Cross-contaminate? The virus also transfers. From bat to human. From the human in China. To the human aprés-skiers in Switzerland. To humans in Denmark. To humans everywhere. To humans. To humans. To humans. My door is sacred. It is a divider. A protector. A thing. My children and I. Potential carriers of death. Humans. We carry the virus across established borders. We cross contaminate. Through the threshold of the door. What if I did not have a door? My privilege?

 

INVISIBILITIES. When I come back home now, the invisible is always on me, itching down fingers that have dared touch. I used to leave the day at the door, slip my thoughts off the way I do shoes, shaken gently onto the parquet floor. Now, day is not to be slipped off but scrubbed; purified; contained. I elbow my way around the front hall, closing and opening doors, not letting my hands contact home. Not yet, not until I can reach the sink and burst the Thing’s darned cell walls off with heavy-duty soap, rinse it down the drain. A bottle of antibacterial gel lives by the front door, but I resist it. Years of dwelling in the invisibilities of the world tell me that my body is a microbial composite, my hand colonised by countless microorganisms that make it their home, crowding out unknown others. For one trained in invisible histories, there is conflict in containment. The immediate safety of my human kin demands I disinfect. Countless times a day in public spaces, I work the gel into every crevice, only to do it again 10 minutes later, when hands have got the better of me and reached out for the world. As humans have done for generations uncountable, I opt to protect my own, right now. Yet I feel vaguely unsafe in the act, as if continuously blasting off wilderness in the thriving meadow of my own backyard. In this strained choice between the urgency of now and the protection of tomorrow, the act of entering the house has become a zone of transition. The bottle of gel by the front door remains full. Instead, I elbow my way around the hall, heading for plain soap and a running tap. Protecting multiple kinships.

 

LOOPS. Pressing down the doorknob, pushing forward, I enter my house. I cross a threshold, my door demarcating the isolated safety of my home and endless possibilities of being infected, infecting others (wait) am I supposed to wash hands before or after I take off my jacket? I wash them before and after. Just about to grab my phone from the pocket of my jacket (hold on) am I supposed to wash hands after I open the zipper on the pocket, before grabbing the phone, and again after touching my phone? Cleaning the phone might be easier, but what to do with keys, wallet and…? What if I just sanitized my hands before pressing down the doorknob, pushing forward, entering my house? Would I then ask: Am I supposed to wash hands before or after I take off my jacket? (hang on) have I ever before been in doubt about the appropriate way to enter my home? A new sense of responsibility rests upon my hands. My hands – pressing, pushing, washing, grabbing, touching – guide me in innocent daily actions while throwing me back in the midst. My thoughts rupture in mismatches between meanings and force me to remake sense of what is going on (Zittoun & Gillespie 2016). My imagination spins into loop upon loop as I try to patch the mismatches into patterns that I recognise. But what I thought I knew from hundreds and thousands of door entrances is no longer common sense. When did entering the house even become a source of mismatched meanings? Press down the doorknob, push forward, press down, push, press, push (take a breath) I enter my house. BERØRINGSFLADER. You touch the keys, warm from your pocket, the handle, cold. Then you step inside, fumble for the small zipper on your jacket, untie the wet laces on your shoes. Did you use your hands for all of it? Did you sense the wetness transfer to your skin? The metal of the handle against your palm? Our bodies touch and are touched by multiple surfaces; other bodies and objects. These points of contact usually go unnoticed, but now they have surfaced and become a place of danger and desire. Who touched the handle before you? It must have been a while. The delivery guy? A friend visiting before the lock-down? In our isolation, we long to touch other bodies, but fear the potential transfer that momentary shared surfaces may bring. ‘There is a circle [a loop?] of the touched and the touching, the touched takes hold of the touching’ (Merleau-Ponty 1968). To touch is to affect and to be affected, to infect, to be infected. In touching, we become affect-able. Infect-able. Touching the handle, we enter chains of connections to the myriads of others touching before us; we affect those who will touch after. Berøringsflader – surfaces of touch – are those surfaces that government guidelines now instruct you to wipe down thoroughly and frequently to avoid transfer of the virus. They are also the surfaces, hard or soft, that connect you to the world and others. Inside your house, you manage surfaces and touch. But to enter, you must touch the outside of the door; you have to touch the world to pass through its different spaces.

 

ENTERING THE HOUSE: 2

MONTAGE. Entering my house used to be a mundane scenario. I hardly noticed the repeating routines. Door. Keys. Open. Enter. Close. Now it has stepped out of the rhythm of everyday life. Now there is an alternative to linearity.  From where the whole world might be unfolded. With the pandemic emerged an assemblage. A new composition of elements in the habit of entering my house. Microbes. Emotions. Neighbours. Cities. Political decisiveness. Countries. Linked in the touch of my door handle. We may borrow the concept of montage from soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Here elements confront. Collide. Not just as singular elements. We experience encounters. Something more real. A phenomenon. A concept. Montage is non-linear. Elements do not fit neatly together. Montage is conflict (Eisenstein 1943, 1949). In this pandemic elements explode when confronted with dissimilar elements.  Entering my house changed from being a sequence of mundane actions. To a – let us call it explosive – montage. Everything I touch might infect and explode. Entering my house is no longer just my body sliding from one space to another. Linearly. I move differently. Think differently. I have been reconfigured into being an explosive potential when put in contact with other elements. Such as my daughter’s hand. Or the soap dispenser. This explosive montage does not limit itself to the scenario of entering my house. During a pandemic. We are all potentially explosive and dangerous elements in our relations to the other.

 

 

INVISIBILITIES. My hand – an organised tangle of bone and flesh and blood enclosed in skin, covered in cells not mine – turns the key rightwards until there is a click. The dog jumps, the door swings open. Operation control kicks into place. A leash is hung by the door. A jacket is thrown onto the coat rack. Shoes – one, two – are shaken onto the floor. The dog’s paws are already at work dirtying the kitchen, I can hear their click clicks against the floor. My own paws I raise ahead of me, sleeves turned up, readying for the sink.  Sink is where the unwelcome gets flushed away, be that particles of RNA novel-to-us, that ontologically ambiguous entity we label Covid-19, or other world debris: bacteria maybe, straight out of the little poo bag containing the dog’s daily business. Undoubtedly, some of my own skin: dead and dying cells, soon to be shed, speedily departed. Water carries it all down the drains and into communal sewage where rats forage for livelihoods. Every day I carry the world home, bringing back transients and settlers. Lorimer et al. (2019) found that kitchen cloths are biodiversity hotspots, teeming with microbial life. I wonder about tea towels, where I now dry my hands, rubbing cloth against skin, repopulating myself with the community stamp that is our home. Invisibilities have always been with us, entangled partners to human lives. What has changed since December 2019 is not reality but risk. With risk, invisibilities surfaced to our awareness. And with awareness, rituals of safety. Looking out the window across fields of grass, I wash my forelimbs with abundant soap, and rinse them with water the length of two happy birthdays.

 

 

LOOPS. Let us think about the loop. Imagine drawing a line. Let the line curve. Bend it so it crosses itself. Let the line continue. Repeat. Does the loop go back to its beginning? No, inevitably time passes while the imagination loops. Does the loop happen several times? Yes, it is a process of learning. Perhaps you imagine a loop that looks different from the one I imagine. The shape is not so important, but rather how we create meaning while our imaginations loop. An example: I thought I knew how to use hand soap but suddenly realise it is supposed to be used differently from what I thought. A mismatch is created. I have to figure out a new way to use hand soap. My imagination loops. Most likely, I was not entirely off in my previous ways of washing hands. Let us build upon that assumption – refine, expand, add to my previous understanding. I have already realised the troubles of when to wash hands, in what sequence and how many times (wait again) what about time? How many seconds of handwashing is enough? Enough to do what – wash away sweat, dirt, virus? Out of consideration for whom? My questions start taking on a different flavour, invoking images of parents, friends and strangers at risk due to age, chronic illness or profession. This is the moment my imagination loop starts bending around itself, tentatively modifying meanings. My entrance to home becomes a practice of care when washing hands signifies the presence of others. The loop reconfigures home entrance – until I experience another mismatch and my imagination loops again (hold on) BERØRINGSFLADER. In surfaces of touch there is contact, but also division; both transgression and demarcation. Inside and outside are differentiated by their surface of touch: your front door. Simultaneously separated and connected. Inside and outside body. Inside and outside house. Skin and walls, both full of openings: mouth, door, eyes, windows, cracks and permeable materials. You enter your house, like a virus may enter you – through its openings. One scenario means safety, another, possible death. You touch your keys again, the handle again, zipper, shoes. Hot, cold, wet. As weeks go by, repetitions form new patterns of touch. I become habituated, having entered my house more than fifty times. Stepping inside, I keep connections to the outside limited to a few unavoidable items. All to be wiped down later. Then head directly for the sink. I imagine you doing the same, your neighbour, and your distant cousin. We are connected and separated by the elaborate routines of isolation, implemented to manage and control boundaries and intersections. ‘Home’ has become the dream and the nightmare of sterility. ‘We’ connect through rituals of delimitation in crossing from outside to inside, through anxious attention to surfaces and borders. What rituals of delimitation carve out boundaries of bodies without doors – without ways of demarcating the inside from the outside – in times of pandemic? A homeless man in the streets of Denmark. A teenager in the townships of South Africa. What point of contact connects or separates me and them? In surfaces of touch we encounter or exclude otherness. Who is the other of this global crisis?

 

ENTERING THE HOUSE: 3

MONTAGE. Silent and invisible explosions. Of microbes. Of my inside. If they meet. To the health of other people. Spreading at exponential speed. Silent explosions of anxiety. Inner panic. Explosions of the economy. Of social injustice. Of everyday life. People losing their jobs. Mayhem explodes across different scales of a silent world. No flights in the sky. Factories closed. No people in the streets. Considering entering my house as a montage. I see more than what is immediately visible to the human eye. ‘Things (…) are continuously reuniting into a whole, and the whole is continuously dividing between things’ (Deleuze 1986, 24). The world reunites into multitudes of connections. Divides again. The world is in my doorway. The political decisions of the Chinese government. Of the Danish government. Of infected Danish skying-tourists sharing shots at a nightclub in Switzerland. ‘It’s unfair that I can’t go to the Traffic Playground just because a person in China ate a snake who ate a bat’ my daughter cries as her favourite playground is closed. The complexity of the world becomes evident. Even to her. If my doorway was an exhibition. I would curate a montage of the whole world here. During this pandemic. The world comes together here. All is on display. The human. The other. The stuff. The politics. The injustice. The whole scenario arises here. Silently exploding.  At my doorway.

 

 

 

INVISIBILITIES. Managing colonisation of the body by microbes is as troublesome a task for marine animals as it is for us terrestrials, I recently learnt; their body forms and behaviours are living histories of responses to this threat. It was a late-night Zoom meeting, and floaty luminescent creatures swam straight out of the PowerPoint to inhabit my dreams. The next morning, as I returned home after a jog – elbows to door handles, straight for the bathroom for soap and lather – I pondered the depths to which my own animality is shaped by microorganisms, my rituals of control a behavioural version of strategies evolved into my body over unimaginable lengths of time. Biologists hypothesize that the centralised nervous system has evolved out of the need to control and coordinate interactions with the microbes that live inside us (Klimovich & Bosch 2018), some of whom digest our food, modulate our immune system, perhaps even shape our sociality. In more ways than we can imagine, we are built and dismantled by invisible others. Covid-19 has made this agency palpable: a novel virus travels among us, co-opting metabolisms, turning our self to the work of other. Fresh to this exposure, our bodies respond in unpredictable ways. Conscious management of human-to-human interaction becomes paramount: one body to another, a hive of integrated multiplicity, preventing touch. Globally aware but locally differentiated, we alter the choreography of human lives at the whims of the invisible. This seems unprecedented; but look at it as a passing moment in the long expanse of evolutionary time, and perhaps what we see is – biological business as usual.

 

LOOPS. we live in times of crisis multiplicity – from climate, financial, health and refugee crises to Corona crisis.  Lauren Berlant calls it crisis ordinariness: Our experience of a crisis is ’not exceptional to history or consciousness but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming‘ (Berlant 2011, 10). My imagination loops show how crisis ordinariness manifests and actualises itself as a process of learning: I figure out how to enter my house appropriately and make sense of entering and handwashing as a practice of care. It might be a flawed practice with more loops in wait – but in it, I can nevertheless address my worries and, for now, maybe rest my conscience. Perhaps this crisis ordinariness implies a promising possibility for continuously learning how to navigate in crisis, individually, culturally and historically. Mismatches unexpectedly appear in the most mundane situations, engaging us in (re)making sense of what we carefully are doing and caring for while pressing down door knobs, pushing forward, entering our houses (but wait) perhaps the multiple crises already have exceeded the pace of our learning processes. Or does our unwillingness to adapt to more appropriate actions sadly trump our knowledge of what we need to change? Is it a combination? While prompting new practices that help us navigate the overwhelming multiplicity of crises, imagination loops during house entering and handwashing invoke images of potential futures – both promising and disturbing. BERØRINGSFLADER. For better or worse, touch is potential for change. In points of contact – even the lightest and briefest ones – there is reactivity. A warm hug from a dear friend, your cheek, soft, against mine, can make the whole difference: be salvaging or be infectious. There is a leap in touching, an infinite difference between touch and distancing. In touch, we exchange microbes, moods, ideas. We cross contaminate. Would you take this leap? When others leap across, are they welcomed? As we find ways to manage the spread of the virus, we start opening our houses again, carefully. We invite over family, friends, colleagues perhaps. Let others touch our door, pass through it. We engage in new ways to make sense of a re-sensitised world of cold handles, wet shoelaces and warm hugs, all now terribly present in our minds. We find new surfaces of touch, new points of contact. Anthropology, biology, psychology, philosophy find themselves skin-to-skin with one another, attempting to grasp a complex rhizomatic reality. Narratives unfold separately but unavoidably touch, trying to make sense of a world-wide pandemic. Languages mix in a global world, and words of my mother tongue may guide you through new thoughts. Berøringsflader, surfaces of touch, show up in multiple layers as dangers and desires, risks and opportunities for trust. Entering our houses now, we are still cautious in touch, but we let others in, acutely aware that we depend on their own management of touch. When you leap across the space between touching and distancing, how do you leap?

Epilogue

This text started as a Facebook Messenger conversation between four researchers trying to make sense of the world a few weeks after Covid-19 caused a nationwide lockdown in Denmark. The conversation unfolded in the period between spring 2020, with the onset of lockdown, and summer 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic slowly faded and measures loosened. The text speaks from this specific moment and geographical position. As the pandemic unfolded and continues to unfold – bringing about new questions and dilemmas on a monthly, if not weekly, basis – we have come to see our text as a historical document; operating already in a past which feels distant even to ourselves, and which needs some re-contextualisation.

At the onset of lockdown, the effects of globalisation disrupted our individual lives; closing down playgrounds, workplaces, and displacing daily interactions into a strange, disembodied and dreamy Zoom universe. We entered our houses again and again and again, struggling to make sense of our mundane and circumscribed lives. As the pandemic unfolded, it brought forth questions at a much larger and collective scale, which we only hint at here; preoccupied as we were with routines overturned. While we struggled to understand how to enter houses, international landscapes changed. As countries established regimes of passage as strict as those of sanitisation, borders and nationalities solidified Global inequalities intensified and continue to become alarmingly evident as disputes over access to vaccines, health resources and isolatable homes make it into everyday conversation. It is surprising to us how little we made of privilege and inequalities at the early stages.

Entering their houses, the four voices share surfaces of touch, cross-contaminating as the same themes appear in different ways; an invisible connective network operating behind the scenes is highlighted by colour markings in the text The world becomes montage, as the common narratives collapse, allowing the overflow of imagery, doubt, words and politics to gain (and lose) meaning by juxtaposition. The lives of microbes – invisibilities to the naked eye – rise to our awareness and become companions in the choices made when entering the house. When everyday activities change meaning and significance, our imagination loops, and we try to find comfort in making sense of them anew.

We approached this text from four disciplines – anthropology, biology, psychology and philosophy – and our collective sensemaking developed in uncertainty for months, over hours of ever-proliferating online conversations. We had no specific aim other than the shared activity of trying to make sense out of the new everyday life we all encountered. An everyday we navigated as citizens, individuals, but also as researchers whose world-views and perspectives are shaped by the disciplines we are engaged in – by the labour of our thoughts, and in dialogue with the thoughts of multiple significant others whom we think with. This piece of writing is one result (although neither the conclusion, nor in any way an adequate summary) of our conversations. These continue to this day: looping, touching, juxtaposing and revealing invisible companions.

 

Helene Scott-Fordsmand, PhD, Medical Museion and Center for Medical Science and Technology Studies, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen. Twitter @HScottFordsmand

Joana Formosinho, Interdisciplinary PhD Fellow, Medical Museion, Department of Public Health, and Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), University of Copenhagen. Twitter @joanaformosinho

Simone Grytter, PhD Fellow, Medical Museion and Center for Medical Science and Technology Studies, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen. Twitter @SGrytter

Tine Friis, PhD Fellow, Medical Museion, Department of Public Health, and Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), University of Copenhagen. Twitter @TiFriis

 

 

Bibliography

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.

Deleuze, G.  (1986, 2013): Cinema I, The movement-image. Paperback edition. London ;: Bloomsbury Academic.

Dinan, T.G., Stilling, R.M., Stanton, C., Cryan, J.F., 2015. Collective unconscious: How gut microbes shape human behavior. Journal of Psychiatric Research 63, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.02.021

Eisenstein, S. M. (1943, 1953): The film sense..Ed. and trans Jay Leyda London: Faber and Faber.

Eisenstein, S (1949) Film form : Essays in film theory .Ed. and trans Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Lorimer, J., Hodgetts, T., Grenyer, R., Greenhough, B., McLeod, C., Dwyer, A., 2019. Making the microbiome public: Participatory experiments with DNA sequencing in domestic kitchens. Trans Inst Br Geogr 44, 524–541. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12289

Klimovich, A.V., Bosch, T.C.G., 2018. Rethinking the Role of the Nervous System: Lessons From the Hydra Holobiont. BioEssays 40, 1800060. https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.201800060

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Zittoun, T., & Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. Routledge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: