Touch, Contingent Lives, and the Pandemic: A Conversation with Liane Carlson — The Revealer

Contact, Contingent Lives, and the Pandemic: A Dialog with Liane Carlson — The Revealer

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(Photograph by Tomazl Levstek/Getty Photographs)

I’ve been in dialog with Liane Carlson for the higher a part of ten years. I can’t consider a subject we’ve come throughout the place she hasn’t been capable of decide it up, flip it round, see in any other case invisible sides, and describe what she sees in language that sparks with sharpness and readability. Mainly, she’s one in all my favourite folks to speak to, which is why I needed to talk along with her for this month’s concern in regards to the pandemic so she will help us suppose by means of how the world has modified, what’s nonetheless altering, and what wants to alter.

Contingency and the Limits of History Book CoverKali Handelman: Your e book, Contingency and the Limits of Historical past: How Contact Shapes Expertise and Which means, was printed precisely two years in the past, in July 2019. Our lives — everybody’s lives — have modified an unlimited quantity since then. Within the e book, you appear to have had a sort of instinct that we have to suppose extra, and in a different way, in regards to the idea of contingency and the importance of contact in how we perceive social relations. I’d adore it if you happen to may summarize the e book’s argument in regards to the relationship between contingency and contact? How does contact, because the title tells us, form expertise and which means?

Liane Carlson: I used to be seven or eight the primary time I actually keep in mind sensing the issue of contingency. I’ve a robust reminiscence of pausing for a second within the upstairs hallway of our home, the place one thing in regards to the flutter of a curtain caught my eye. I had handed that spot a dozen occasions a day for almost my total life and it was very acquainted to me—the precise shade of pink of the curtain, the feel of the wooden flooring underneath my toes, the slight grit that our canines appeared to trace in in all places—however all of sudden it struck me as extremely unusual that this was my home, my life, my toes wriggling on the ground. That these folks have been my mother and father and never another folks, even that I had been born in any respect, when it so simply may have been in any other case, if only some circumstances in my mother or father’s lives had been totally different. There are many other ways to outline contingency, however it’s that very fundamental sense that issues might be in any other case that has at all times me. That second within the hallway was my first private recognition of contingency.

The e book got here from that sort of expertise; I used to be enthusiastic about the way in which these moments of dislocation ambushed folks. In spite of everything, it’s theoretically at all times the case that our lives are fragile, tenuous, and able to being upended at any second, however we solely actually really feel that to be the case every now and then. Principally, we simply keep it up, locked in routine duties, taking the essential contours of our lives with no consideration, even when we sometimes kick towards them. So why is it that typically that sense of strangeness flooring us?

And that’s actually the place contact is available in. There’s an previous Christian theological custom that sees contingency because the lot of mortal creatures. God, (or the God of philosophers, anyway), is changeless, immovable, immune from passions. However we’re weak, thrown right into a world that batters us and tosses us about. The impulse to disclaim or decrease that vulnerability is robust; that’s actually what the Stoics, Spinoza, and an entire host of different folks have been scuffling with within the historical past of philosophy. It’s not attainable to close out recognition of our frailty and contingency altogether, although, as a result of we’ve our bodies. You merely can’t maintain the phantasm that there’s some type of unerring course in your life when at any second you will be struck down by sickness, wounded in battle, bleed to demise after childbirth, and so forth.

For the thinkers I’m taking a look at within the e book—nineteenth- and twentieth-century French and German thinkers, writing within the wake of this Christian custom—we’re most open to the world by means of our sense of contact. Partly, they’re taking part in on the etymological roots of contingency. Contingent comes from the Latin tangere, to the touch. They’re additionally simply constructing pretty, delicate descriptions of what it looks like to the touch and be touched. Somebody grasps you, exhausting, for the primary time by the arm and also you understand in a rush that every one the clauses of the social contract you’ve relied in your total life are only a collective fiction that gained’t prevent; another person (the identical somebody?) brushes a thumb over the again of your hand and a brand new life opens earlier than you. Or, in 2020, you hug the flawed individual and abruptly, like a buddy of ours, you’re twenty-seven and affected by a stroke within the aftermath of Covid.

KH: Speaking to you has made me take into consideration how, within the pandemic, contact turned scary simply because it additionally turned treasured in new methods. We’ve gone from advisories to not contact our faces or groceries, to months of isolation and new social negotiations round handshakes and hugs. So many norms have been uncovered and disrupted. I’m wondering how contingency may assist us to grasp what’s been taking place and, maybe, supply a roadmap ahead on this new panorama?

LC: Nicely, I feel that recognition of contingency isn’t so summary anymore. Somebody went to a moist market seven thousand miles away and the entire world shut down. It’s exhausting to get a a lot clearer instance of the contingency of our total international order, of our lives, than that. The affect of Covid on our each day routines was big, after all. All of the sudden we had lockdowns, masks in all places, colleges going distant, cities emptying out. Worlds upended in a means that felt unbelievable when it began. At my workplace, we even left our crops as a result of we figured…effectively, nobody actually is aware of what we figured. That it must be a blip? That we’d be again to our previous routine in per week? That one thing so irregular couldn’t final for therefore lengthy?

However Covid additionally modified the way in which we contact one another and our environment. I’d typically meet a buddy of mine who’s in her 80s in a neighborhood park during the last yr. In regular occasions we’d hug once we met. Possibly it could have been advantageous to hug her. Or possibly it could have killed her. That’s the type of calculation all of us discovered ourselves making over the previous yr, consistently.

If I realized something from the assorted thinkers I studied in my e book, it’s that contact shouldn’t depend for a lot, not commonly not less than. It’s advantageous and regular for the occasional expertise of contact to attract us in and engulf us. Kissing somebody for the primary time, sidling as much as a accomplice on the sofa, petting a canine—these are all very actual pleasures, even requirements, as we realized. An enormous, big a part of transferring by means of the world with any stage of confidence is the power to show off our consciousness of contact, although. I need to have the ability to seize my keys, chop some greens, punch an elevator button with out being overwhelmed by the notice of the objects I grasp. I need to deal with objects and instruments, as if I’ve some stage of management over my environment; I need to have the ability to contact issues with out feeling them contact me.

Elbow BumpCovid challenged that, and never on an mental stage. I’d usually go working throughout Covid on my lunch breaks. Once I reached a sure spot, the sting of a pier, it was at all times my behavior to slap the iron gate—simply a type of little runner’s rituals. I stored doing it throughout Covid however the expertise was totally different than it had been previous to the pandemic. I may by no means do it with out feeling my fingers buzzing with the reminiscence of that gate, its pebbled texture, the coolness of its steel. Or consider the way in which folks punch elevator buttons with their knuckles, or the instance of a person I noticed the opposite day who held the door to my condominium constructing, utilizing the very tippy finish of his fingers, shielded by the scrunched-up material of his sleeve. The world touches us, whether or not we would like it to or not, and it’s unsettling, even an assault on our fundamental potential to consider that we’ve some stage of management over the environment. I typically consider this second in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea when the narrator is struck down by horror on the feeling of a doorknob in his hand when he goes to open a door. “Objects mustn’t contact as a result of they aren’t alive. You utilize them, put them again in place, you reside amongst them: they’re helpful, nothing extra. However they contact me, it’s insufferable. I’m afraid of being involved with them as if they have been dwelling beasts.”

KH: Sure, completely! That vibrating consciousness of being touched or having touched one thing actually resonates. I’m wondering if the world has at all times been like that for some folks, although, and now the expertise is turning into extra widespread? That this sense of each vulnerability and duty (and even guilt) is/was universalized? In different phrases, are there methods the pandemic has revealed one thing that was already there?

LC: That widespread wariness is an instance of how Covid allow us to see that our expertise of contact is contingent. Contact isn’t just some pure, timeless means of accessing the world. It’s formed by historical past, tradition, science, and private expertise. In occasions of nice turmoil, our expertise of contact can change. But Covid additionally amplified pre-existing experiences of contact. It made clear, as you say, how treasured it’s and the way debilitating it’s to be denied the heat of human contact. I don’t simply imply that psychologically. It’s bodily debilitating to be minimize off from contact. You could find photographs on-line of sufferers in comas with their palms cradled between two latex gloves full of heat water. Nurses in Brazil got here up with the thought as a result of household and associates weren’t allowed to go to sufferers within the hospital. They thought the gloves would mimic the heat of human contact and, by all accounts, it labored. Sufferers’ important indicators began choosing up after they got the gloves. And I’m positive the necessity for contact is why so many individuals acquired canines. (Additionally, canines are nice.)

The previous yr additionally allow us to actually really feel what a danger touching somebody for the primary time will be. I stay in New York Metropolis and my neighborhood emptied out more-or-less fully within the early months of the pandemic. Day-after-day, I’d go on my night stroll with my husband and my canine. Principally we strolled by the river, subsequent to empty tennis courts. One evening, we noticed a pair sitting on a bench. That they had their backs to me and their heads turned to one another. I may simply make out their profiles, silhouetted underneath the dim orange mild towards the river—her face, a bit of sharp and angular, his broad and blunted. As we handed, the 2 leaned in shut and I noticed his finger gently pull down her white, cotton masks. That’s after I turned away. I felt like I used to be watching one thing pornographically intimate. Who is aware of what that kiss was truly like for these two folks. Possibly it was nice and so they’ll go on to stay fortunately collectively till ripe previous age. Possibly it was terrible and he or she’ll spend years telling the story about how she chanced all of it to kiss a boy throughout a plague yr, solely to really feel his tongue flopping round in her mouth like a stranded trout. However I’m positive a primary kiss in an deserted metropolis throughout an uncontrolled pandemic should amplify the combination of trepidation, want, belief and doubt skilled throughout any first kiss. I’m positive in 100 years folks can be writing smutty historic fiction about two folks kissing for the primary time throughout Covid.

We’re in an attention-grabbing second the place issues are quickly returning to regular, not less than within the U.S., however you may nonetheless see these lingering results of the final yr on how folks transfer by means of their environments and contact the world. I had lunch with a buddy just lately who went to a convention in-person for the primary time in a yr. I requested him how everybody dealt with social distancing and he advised me that it was principally advantageous, however that he had somebody stride as much as him and stick his arm out to shake palms. Since he didn’t need to be impolite, my buddy shook the opposite man’s hand, however spent the entire time mentally counting down till he may douse himself with Purell with out being too apparent about it.

I feel the pull to return to normalcy could be very, very sturdy, however nonetheless our our bodies keep in mind the uncertainty.

KH: Sure, positively, I feel you’re proper that we’re at an inflection level in assessing what “regular” was and what a “new regular” may, or ought, to be. Which makes me take into consideration points you’ve written about within the Revealer earlier than, just like the local weather disaster, Me Too, apologies and forgiveness, and the precarity of mental life. How may these concepts about contingency and contact supply us additional insights not simply (simply?!) in regards to the pandemic, however these different interlocking points?

LC: Arguably, lots of people have been feeling how contingent their lives are for fairly a while. In case your potential to pay hire hinges on Uber ideas, if you happen to fear each time you drive a automobile that you just is perhaps pulled over by the police and shot, if you happen to stay in a flood zone or close to forest fires, you already know on some stage that every one you want is one unhealthy day and every part in your life may change. Even if you happen to don’t face these quick uncertainties, I do suppose there’s a extra normal sense of fragility within the air. A yr or two in the past I learn Czeław Miłosz’s autobiography, Native Realm. He talks about dwelling in Poland between WWI and WWII, and the entire nation feeling sure that one thing terrible was going to occur, simply not figuring out when or what, precisely. A couple of years earlier, I may need learn it and thought, oh he’s claiming to be so prescient to make himself sound wiser and smarter. Now I learn it and suppose, sure, precisely.

Covid actually democratized that sense of contingency. It additionally shook up a few of the gender dynamics of contact. When my buddy was telling me about his expertise with a handshake, I laughed. Partially as a result of I may think about precisely what he was feeling, however partially as a result of he had completely described the psychological strategy of a girl courting in her twenties—30% satisfied that the boor standing subsequent to her may kill her, however principally frightened about find out how to extricate herself with out seeming impolite.

I feel lots of people, notably girls, already knew how unsettling it may be to lack management over who and the way they’re touched, however lots of people didn’t. Once I was researching the e book, I’d consistently learn these very intelligent arguments by French (male) thinkers, like Derrida, about how touching solely ever touches the boundaries of one other individual’s pores and skin, so, in a way, touching by no means touches. And I’d suppose, “Clearly this can be a man who has by no means been groped on a subway.”

The query, after all, is whether or not any of those revelations of vulnerability will linger or lead to any significant change in our attitudes towards others or towards the environment. I don’t know. I are likely to suppose our capability to bury disagreeable experiences or not less than displace them elsewhere is large. Consider how we basically repressed the reminiscence of the Spanish flu in our tradition. Or have a look at the way in which individuals who don’t need to put on masks have picked up the language of “my physique, my alternative” from pro-choice advocates. They’re trolling the left by utilizing that language, after all, however they could even be fully honest about their fears of shedding bodily autonomy. Covid hasn’t made it any simpler to have a dialog about bodily autonomy, although. Quite the opposite, Roe vs. Wade might be going to be overturned, or not less than severely restricted, at precisely the second the language of “my physique, my alternative” is in all places.

I feel lecturers, notably in my world of continental philosophy of faith, spent a really, very very long time assuming the type of disruption and assault on our sense of certainty that we expertise by means of contingency was clearly good, as a result of it made us a bit of humbler and tore down previous, ossified methods of being on the planet. I’ve by no means been that assured that our expertise of our personal contingency is essentially a superb factor that opens area for a greater world. That’s the issue with contingency—our expertise of it’s at all times contingent and so are our reactions to it.


Kali Handelman is an instructional editor based mostly in London. She can also be the Supervisor of Program Improvement and London Regional Director on the Brooklyn Institute for Social Analysis and a Contributing Editor on the Revealer.

Liane Carlson has a Ph.D. in philosophy of faith from Columbia College and has labored as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton College and NYU. She at present lives and writes in New York, the place she is engaged on a e book tentatively titled Towards Forgiveness. Her first e book, Contingency and the Limits of Historical past: How Contact Shapes Which means and Expertise is offered from Columbia College Press.

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