Hands Off! Pandemic, Sin And Fears Of The Human Touch
Contagion fears and extreme attachment to the internet are reinforcing that most traditional of moral injunctions
BOGOTA — In these, the worst days of the pandemic, I sometimes have a horrible thought: that we'll never again be able to hug anyone, not our friends, not our parents or grandparents, not even our children.
Hopefully that's not the case. And yet, history has shown that when the body carries an infectious disease, contact is the first thing to go. Erotic desire recoiled before syphilis and AIDS. While sooner or later we recover our ability to approach one another, the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi believes that the fears generated by such experiences become permanent as "rituals, fashion or lifestyles."
Berardi published his Phenomenology of the End in 2015, but the book reveals much about this particular time. And while he's not the first to speak on the subject, he is one of the most brilliant in doing so.
The author explains how the progression from the technical to the digital order has changed our perception modes and radically altered social interactions. He cites physical contact to illustrate that we can only experience the world "when our skin makes contact with another body (both human and non-human) and heat can flow from one organism to another."
It is sad to read this when we have become fearful even of touching surfaces: paper, door knobs, elevator buttons...
History has shown that when the body carries an infectious disease, contact is the first thing to go.
Berardi elaborates on the link between physical contact and guilt, which appeared with the monotheistic religions that associate the body with sin. This is dramatically illustrated in the doctrine of the Virgin's immaculate conception of Christ. Today, hygiene and modern culture — which are strictly regulating when and how we can touch anyone — have joined religion's dissuasive voice. Modern society is repeating the Noli me tangere (touch me not) imperative, asthe resurrected Christ told Mary Magdalene. Cultural variations do remain however.
No physical contact — Photo: Marco Iacobucci/IPA/ZUMA
Fear of another's body also boosts consumption of pornography, which is happening in the pandemic. Simplifying Berardi's ideas a little, the current proliferation of pornography is linked to an "emotional pathology" that is exacerbated by pornography's mediatization and expansion online. The virtual and digital worlds have distanced people from their sense of empathy and comprehension.
Being constantly online, says Berardi, may help people escape the stress of competition or precarious work, but it is canceling physical contact. This has taken extreme form in Japan, where too many people live in a state of what's known as hikikomori, an acute social withdrawal — but within a kind of digital purdah — that is particularly prevalent among young adults. South Korea, the "land of Samsung and LG," is another country combining the highest levels of smartphone use and connectivity, with the highest suicide figures.
Berardi's insights are more complex than what I'm able to explain here. But they're worth contemplating, all the more so now, when traditional morality and the digital apotheosis have joined forces to thwart physical contact.