Social Physical Distance Proximity Diagram (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 24)

This is the twenty-fourth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH




Social Physical Distance Proximity Diagram

By Dean Kenning

The virus enters the host cells of bodies of individuals in a population through physical proximity. ‘Physical distancing’ needs to be operative at a social level for prevention and containment to be successful – that is the duty of the state. However, the official term ‘social distancing’ might suggest a distance from ‘the social’, rather than society-wide physical distancing. Social distance was not at all the experience of many who, in various ways, felt social closeness during lockdown. In the UK, the term ‘social distance’ could be aligned with Margaret Thatcher’s dictum ‘there is no such thing as society’. On 29 March, six days after lockdown, Boris Johnson, physically isolating with Covid-19, declared that ‘there is [after all!] such a thing as society’ ­– a fact epitomised, of course, by the NHS, essential care work, and social cooperation. Johnson’s epiphany might be viewed as a purely cynical, not to say hypocritical political exercise, or else as a rhetorical concession as to the bankruptcy ­– now plain for all to see – of the anti-social(ist), privatising individualism which Johnson’s party has upheld as holy writ.

Given all this there are interesting positions to be mapped with respect to relations of the social and the physical in connection with both distance and proximity. In respect to a state’s responsibilities during a viral pandemic, social distancing at an ideological level may force physical proximity amongst sections of the population by those who remain at a safe physical distance. Alternatively, social proximity at an ideological level may, thanks to those who must necessarily remain physically proximate in medical and care situations, protect people by enabling physical distance.



Dean Kenning is an artist and writer living in London.
May 29th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020, Tom

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020, Tom

Bernard Stiegler, quoted from The Neganthropocene (trans. Daniel Ross): “Does anyone really believe that it is possible to ‘solve’ the problems of climate change, habitat destruction and cultural destruction without addressing the consumerist basis of the present macro-economic system, or vice versa, or without addressing the way in which this system depletes the psychic energy required to find the collective will, belief, hope and reason to address this planetary challenge? Can this consumerism really survive the coming wave of automation that threatens to decimate its customer base and undermine the ‘consumer confidence’ that is fundamental to its perpetual growth requirements, themselves antithetical, once again, to the problems of biospherical preservation?”

August 14th, 2020, Tom
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