Michel Foucault accurately captured our current situation: whenever plagues threatened the survival of towns in the seventeenth century, he writes in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, authorities invariably responded with austere measures. In order to control movement in and out of epicenters, a town and its outlying districts were cordoned, and those who flouted the regulations, venturing out of the shelters, did so at the pain of death. Only appointed officials were allowed on streets, and solely with the responsibility of reporting deaths and new cases. “Every day, too, the syndic goes into the street for which he is responsible; stops before each house: gets all the inhabitants to appear at the windows,” he writes. 1 Yet, in this text, Foucault was not referring to the overhaul of lifestyles, but rather to the surveillance system aimed at enforcing mass discipline.
From this earlier example, there is an evident consistency in the methods of controlling disease outbreaks. In response to the fear of contagious diseases, bacterias, and viruses, attention turns towards citizens or residents of a town or city. At such times, laboring under a persistent hysteria and helplessness, the public space is suspended, and the wandering residents are replaced by the agents of law. Sentinels and militia are positioned along streets, and, with full authority, permitted to kill. It is then unsurprising that, within the first few days of curfew in some countries, for example in Kenya, the state has claimed more lives than the pandemic.2 We see that, still in the seventeenth century, there is provision for movement, and only then is one exempt from persecution. Even then, what is absent, and indeed is unmentioned in Foucault’s seminal text, is the insertion of the social as an additional mechanism of control.
In the period that Foucalt referred to, the “social” is inexistent. And so, it is permissible to state that the social, as a paradigm of control, is an entirely contemporary phenomenon. The idea of social distancing, then, enters into the collective consciousness, and its etymology demands an examination. What has evolved into social distance today is, in the seventeenth century, a matter of necessity. “If it is absolutely necessary to leave the house, it will be done in turn, avoiding any meeting.” 3 But the social distance that enters into vogue in these moments, is one that appends an additional element. Perhaps this arises from the specialization in biological sciences, and hence the understanding behaviors of non-human agents, of pathogens. In place of avoiding any meeting, there are recommendations of protective gear, and conducting these meetings within a prescribed distance.
This ideal distance—of at least six feet—between potential virus hosts presents a new sphere of the private within the public space. What is confounding is the interpretation of the objective distance, of the space between two or more individuals as social rather than physical. Omission of the term physical distance casts a fresh perspective towards the implied meaning of “social distancing.” The term physical distance would have been more appropriate, because it is outward looking, and focuses on the tangible human form, on measurement of the nearness between bodies. It is the proximity among bodies that has, in addition to biotechnological advancements, been the latest instrument of controlling infectious diseases and viruses. Being invisible, the virus is no longer within the scope of control, but those who are bound to suffer from its invasion, and who are bound to restricted movement. But the term social distancing, now entering the collective, global consciousness, has the potential of usurping the meaning of what is social and what is not.
Still, there is absence of the social in the earlier chronicles of plague control. The evolution of the social as a mechanism of control is a novel instrument, and this draws attention to the emergence of society within the European canon. Hannah Arendt, suggests that society emerged in the courts of monarchs, and then served as the archetype for general values.4 It is the nobility and the courtesans who, in consequence of their better education, were the “good” society. Subsequent artistic expressions, for instance, were directed towards the norms of this society. It then arises that to be social is to be part of the “good” society. Yet anything social is abstract and intangible, and primarily reflects a categorization of human populations. It is within this lens, within this scope of categorization, that the concept of “social distancing” is rendered as an obscure distinction between physical proximity and social categories.
Social Distance in Art
When applied to cultural institutions, physical proximity arouses a different controversy. Application to cultural institutions is apt because, while human body bodies represent the tangible form, artefacts are repositories of civilizations. In this case, they encapsulate and manifest the goodness or beauty of a society, and in return they are vessels for social values. It is perhaps interesting that physical distance, a term that could have replaced “social distance,” has been a norm within museums and art galleries, especially in calibrating proximity to artefacts. These artefacts have probably survived a series of iconoclasm. In some museums, this distance is recommended through other means, including demarcations, and when applied to the “social distancing,” they both denote a similar desire to protect. Only in museums, for that matter, it is the endurance of the work of art that is in question.
The distance imposed within cultural institutions is in itself both physical and social, and now, with the pandemic, we find it has widened beyond six feet. In the past few weeks, museums and art galleries have launched virtual tours. Using special cameras, museums and galleries can now provide an access to the artefacts, but this merely offers a glimpse of the art works, images of the artefacts, and so widening the accessibility gap. Although digital platforms promise accessibility, they manage to do so by a trivializing process, in such a way that the aura felt through being present before a work of art is lost. Virtual distance, one that is calibrated through electronic signals and digital codes, replaces the social and physical distance.
But this separation between artefacts and individuals, and therefore perpetuating what we can term as the true social distance, has its roots in the Reformation era. In western civilization, the upsurge of iconoclasm had, first and foremost, icons and religious imagery as its victims. Hans Belting writes that “the mocking of images was sometimes more important than their removal.” 5 In antiquity, for example, icons had a local agency, were believed to be divine, and could be touched and kissed for effect. These icons, painted and unpainted holy images, were social as far as they were accessible to pilgrims. But following the iconoclastic assault on public images, which were associated with idolatry, painting of images was relegated to private galleries, mostly owned by the nobles, and later on by wealthy merchants. Belting notes that it was Luther who made a case for images, citing that idolatry was confined to images within places of worship, as opposed to those in private ownership—to those that are to be admired for their beauty.6 Beginning from this period, we can perceive the rise in private collection of artefacts, and therefore the creation of the social distance that applies to art institutions today.
The emerging sense of “social distancing,” can also refer to an ideal psychosocial relation. Returning back to the notion of image mocking, the term social distance perhaps alludes to the complete disregard of other’s welfare, to an array of despicable acts, committed within public spaces. In this novel conceptualization, it is possible to perceive the creation of a preemptive clause that, for the duration of the pandemic, suspends all those behaviors that were considered as anti-social. We must examine, in fine details, what it means to be anti-social. In its common, universal meaning, to be anti-social denotes an absence of social decorum, and a conscious effort to avoid all forms of social contact. The entry of this term as a control measure, in this case, normalizes what had been condemned as despicable behavior. It is, hence, not a surprise that instead of “physical distance,” the term “social distance” has taken precedence.
From a sociological point of view, “social distance” refers to a concept that is far from its intended use in the current pandemic situation. As applied within the pandemic context, the term, in contrast to its underlying meaning, is bent towards usefulness, towards functionality. First attributed to Georg Simmel, “social distance” denotes the gap between different social groups within society, and the frequency within which intergroup interactions appear. When taken within this literal meaning, social distancing can refer to separation from those strangers, with whom one “has only certain more general qualities in common.”7 For the moment, social distancing is an effective measure, but it is the elimination of the anti-social value that it engenders that can become the next task. Approached from this end, from the separation of specific and universal qualities, the control mechanism has the potential of fragmenting social consciousness, evolving from proximity among bodies, to remoteness to specific bodies.