2. April 2020

In the midst of circulation

Foto: Heiko Neumeister


Writing about distance in times of social distancing

Von Olga Hohmann

When I started writing, only some years before, it immediately became an act of consolation. This relief consisted of the fact that, in that activity, I could allow myself to distance from my position of experiencing (which always also means exposed-ness) and to treat my own life, for a short moment, as a source of thinking and telling only - the painfully entangled life was abstracted by the action of typing. The quality of abstraction is, for me, in combination with the activity of writing, an emotional category – redemption. 


So, when it became clear that these weeks would be a time of general quarantine, I worried about many things, mostly economic ones. What I did not fear was the question of my own occupation: A long period of writing lay before me -  and, like many writers,  I am often in a kind of chosen quarantine anyway.

I had collected enough stories to process through my MacBooks keyboard and enough people to whom I had promised to turn these experiences into texts.


Unfortunately, after some days of being in a not-self-chosen quarantine, I had to realize that my expectation did not work out. The current situation had put a new kind of numb-ness on me, something between blunt and paralyzed, a lethargic way of not finding my own thoughts any relevant – or even have some. Even though this should have been a very good time for people who like to observe and write from a contemplative distance, I didn't find this inner distance in my actual social distance – quarantine felt different when everyone else is in it, too. The machine of the outside has to be running in order to escape her - now, being inside, hidden, isn't really an escape, it's just reality.


The question of ‚publicness‘ has shifted – staying in doesn’t mean that one is ‚stepping out‘ anymore, as usually – it is now a public gesture. Leaving the house, walking along the empty streets (or, even more daring, taking the subway), feels, on the other hand, almost like being in a kind of ‚underground‘, alongside with people who don’t follow societal rules, who are, as they say in the news, ‚irresponsible‘ - the foolish ones, the lazy ones, the ones who don’t obey or can’t afford to.


Also internally I feel quite opposite, quite less above than usually: While I am normally shockingly uninformed in all matters of ‚real politics‘ and at the same time advocate bold hypotheses, I am now completely lacking in theories - but instead always ‚up to date‘ - I check the John Hopkins website with the exact numbers of infected, dead and recovered people every twenty minutes. Since this invisible (and therefore seemingly abstract) virus appeared, I am myself unable to abstract things. I finally experience ‚involvement‘, the immediacy that I am usually often times lacking Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as exciting, as active as I thought it would – but more like a helplessness that often leads to lazyness.


I went to Berlin when I realized that the borders will be closing. The first day, I went to the supermarket which is closest to my apartment. In the checkout-line, I ran into KC, whom I had met briefly in Rotterdam but who had stayed a remote acquaintance. She had moved to the same neighborhood a month before. Even though we had never been close, we both were delighted about our coincidental encounter, so we had a Cappuccino-To-Go in front of the supermarket - behind us the business of the shoppers (the only human business right now) and in front of us the movements of the passing cars. KC and I ended up standing on the empty parking lot (nobody in this part of the city has a car), for an hour and a half, talking about many different things and sometimes not at all. Within the brightness of the early spring sun, I finally found the missing kind of stillness (the ‚stepping out‘) within the movement of others, that I usually find, when I stay home to write. Since then, I had a coffee on the parking lot of the supermarket every day, almost always together with KC – it is the only place in my analogue world in which I still feel the relief of urbanity. And maybe it is even the lack of purity, the potential contagiousness of the people whom I am surrounded by, the inconsistency of the publicness, that relaxes me.


But why does the stillness of staying home have such a different effect on me when it’s imposed on me instead of chosen? The relief of writing always consisted in the capacity of the activity to allow me to ‚step out‘ not only from the ‚outside world‘, but also from my own body and almost, so it seems to me, my own mortality. Why does writing give my a feeling of immortality? It is as if I fully commited, for a moment, to the side of language and thoughts – as if I could abstract anything physical into thinking and find some relief in this abstraction (even though I know that writing, typing especially, has always also been a bodily activity – right now, for example, due to spending too much time surfing the internet horizontally (too much swiping while lying down) I am fighting against a beginning carpal tunnel syndrome – that, of course, doctors don’t have time to cure right now).


But why was it exactly the parking lot in front of the supermarket where I found my missing stillness? Is it because I need things to circulate around me to withdraw?

The self-chosen quarantine of writing usually feels like self-empowering passivity. Staying home has now become the opposite – it is a nervous activity, a fearful one instead of a consolating one, not passive but very active. The function of the ‚outside‘ and the ‚private‘ have changed, they switched roles. Homes have become the places of circulation, for example by becoming ‚home offices‘ or places of ‚home shopping‘. While people don’t get dressed in the morning anymore, inside of them it is rotating, circulating even more.


I am from a big city. The subway station where I grew up is one of the most crowded ones in Berlin, and so I was constantly exposed to moving between many different humans. It is also the place where, historically (but still) the heroin scene of the city would gather and so I remember, for example, that an instructor came to my kindergarten to teach us not to touch the needles that were lying around on playgrounds. As a child, I felt pity for these people, sometimes wrinkled my nose about the smell of some of them and said hello to others, that I would meet everyday on my way to the subway. I never felt scared. (I even got used to some of them giving me compliments when I grew into a young woman and started to enjoy it) When I moved to Rotterdam, almost two years before, I developed social anxieties (which often showed themselves in form of physical symptoms), that I never had before. It took me a while to discover it, but it was mostly the emptiness of the streets that gave me this strong feeling of discomfort. When I, coming from a bigger city, complain about more provincial places, it often comes accross as snobbish. But it is actually not so much a question of entertainment as it is a question of more or less anxiety.


When I first came to New York, a city which is many times bigger and in which things are circulating even more, I felt even more of a relief. I had suffered from insomnia for a long time before and already in the first night in this new place, I slept deeply and without interruptions. It was summer and the whole city was constantly vibrating from all the traffic, transshipment, fire engines, police cars and air conditioning (‚AC’s‘) running at the same time. The first morning, after I had slept so well, I told my friend, whom I was visiting, about my feelings of relief. I said: ‚It is as if the city is a pulsating machine and it’s comforting to know that it’s running without my help, that it doesn’t need me‘. My friend agreed and said, that she understood. But she also said, that, when I would spend more time in Manhattan, I would discover that this machine is actually kept busy, kept buzzing, exclusively by consumption. Things are circulating because liquidity, fluidity is one of the highest commandments of capitalism. Everything and everyone has to stay in motion.


Of course, my affection to the pulsation of the city is a highly privileged one – I can see the machine running in abstraction, I can perceive it’s movement ‚as such‘, only because I am not aware of my position in the cycle of exploitation – it didn’t harm me, a german middle class kid, enough yet to make me realize its brutality in an affective (not only logical) way. So when I now find stillness in front of the supermarket, enjoying the circulation as a ‚natural‘ movement (the only place where people are still performing these moves) it is a bourgeois joy. A friend of mine once identified bourgeois behaviour as one that implies that these people have the possibility for an ‚inspired naivity‘, a seemingly innocent, distant view on the world. They have the luxury of not feeling like they are in a functional or systemic relation to their surrounding, but instead have the ability to perceive the world as an aesthetical phenomenon rather than a social or economical one because they don’t have to fight for their position (or to claim it in front of/in relation to other peoples positions). Following my friend‘s observation, the attitude of non-competitiveness, untouchability, is a characteristics of privilege per se.


The author Louis-Ferdinand Céline describes in one of his works how he suffered from headaches all his life - which suddenly disappeared from one day to the next and never returned. The day his head stopped hurting was the day the First World War broke out.


I always thought of myself as someone who was functioning similarly – who would find relief within the drasticness of tense political situations, who would perceive the catastrophe as something that was freeing herself from her neurotic tics - those that I had developed because I needed some profane obstacles in a sheltered world. Now, that I suffer from a lack of inspiration, from fear and melancholia, I am almost happy not to be as untouchable as I thought. I am experiencing ‚immediacy‘ within forced (social) distance – in the same way that I am usually experiencing ‚distance ‘ within moments that require involvement.


I have to end this text now because I am meeting KC in ten minutes – we are having coffee on the parking lot, between the business of the traffic and the business of people shopping groceries like never before – in the midst of circulation. I actually can’t wait.