As the pandemic rages, we are forced to acknowledge a world of beings too tiny to see. Though we’ve known since third grade science that they are there — bugs, germs, viruses — for most of us, most of the time, they are no more real than fairies or leprechauns. Suddenly, in this most scientific of times — proudly extremist anti-rationalists not withstanding — we are forced to reckon with the small entities that reside in and on our hulking human organism. But this is not Horton Hears a Who. They are not cute or friendly, but on the attack, sneaking in through holes in our bodies, the very openings that give us access to life-giving air, water and food.
The environment itself becomes unfriendly. Formerly benign surfaces — countertops and handles, books and remote controls— leap into the foreground, suddenly really seen, as if for the first time. Objects that were once mere things, invisible objects meant to silently obey our every bidding, become dangerous double agents. It is as if the gas pump or grocery cart had suddenly developed eyes that stare defiantly back at us, daring us to ever take them for granted again. It is as if the object world has suddenly become animated and activated, lumbering after us like zombies in the apocalypse.
Most suspicious, of course, are the bodies of other people. Unless our awareness had already been sharpened from living with compromised immunity, others’ hands and mouths had been inseparable from their subjectivity. Lips and fingers were experienced in terms of words, kisses, gestures, signals, and emotion filled touch. But these orifices and digits are suddenly unmoored from others’ human subjectivity, transformed, too, into treacherous objects. Where once were smiles and whispers, now lurks the threat of leaking contagion. A month ago we were entranced by the abstract subjectivity flowing from the creature across the table — the meanings they created and cast in our direction — but are now distracted by their brute physicality. These members of our human family are suddenly tainted by an otherness that we announce and enact as we move in sweeping wide berths around one another when necessity forces us from our isolation chambers.
As the necessary but tedious rituals of washing our own hands reminds us — and, in public, we must wash them with a vigor that shouts our hygienic virtue to others — even our own bodies have become a danger to us. This, of course, can only mean one thing: the “I” that I must keep safe turns out to be somehow separate from these limbs and digits I’ve been lugging around all these years. These days, my many pounds of flesh feel a little less like who am than like who I am burdened by. For the most part, I had imagined it was just me here, but, no, it turns out there have been two of us all along: me and my body. And like a horror movie plot, I have just learned that this is a roommate I can neither trust nor escape.
In anticipation of the fallout of this scourge, we point to what we can see and hear, the tragic deaths and economic ruin, the livelihoods destroyed and dreams tangibly interrupted. A more insidious and pervasive shift, though, is the impact on our confident sense of identity relative to other beings and stuff. This sounds like indulgently philosophical musing until we consider what happens when we come to habitually see through the lens of otherness. What we objectify — be it things or people — becomes easier to subjugate, abuse, and destroy according to whims we need not justify. If we do not remain diligently self-reflective, this may become our new normal, leaving stains that will not be washed away by a simple solution of tap water and household bleach.