As I stare at the screen, I think of the missing bodies

Ideas

As I stare at the screen, I think of the missing bodies

The lockdown has made apparent the ways in which technology can augment but never replace human contact

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Despite what may be said of it, technology does not seem capable of replacing human intimacy.
EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY Despite what may be said of it, technology does not seem capable of replacing human intimacy.
Image: Keith Tamkei

Every day this week, Times Select is proud to bring you insightful reflections and moving observations from five of Africa’s finest authors, who like the rest of us are locked down with their own thoughts.

Last month, the coronavirus found me dealing with a personal crisis, needing to go into the hospital for a medical procedure. I am currently in Iowa City, in Midwestern America. Being in Iowa City during the social crisis precipitated by the coronavirus and my own personal crisis meant I was far away from my usual support system: my partner who lives in Houston, and my family in South Africa and Zimbabwe. It meant my time of crisis found me alone. As a result, I was in a constant state of panic. My fears kept me awake at night. I was anxious about what the lockdown period meant for my pending hospital visit, whether I would be able to get medical attention or would have my appointment postponed, forcing me to live in distress and pain indefinitely for the foreseeable future.

I have my partner, my therapist and friends scattered across the globe to thank for their support during this fraught time. While the world was commiserating over a very public and shared social calamity, they took on the added task of supporting me through my own personal one. It was surreal how things I had taken for granted before, such as human intimacy, were now, at a time when I needed them the most, not only no longer possible, but dangerous.

We can no longer pretend not to see the bodies around us.

My partner was not able to fly down to be with me. I had to make do with the strangely distant texture of the phone or computer screen. I say strangely because technology has always felt like an intimate tool, but in retrospect, this seems so only because we have generally taken human contact for granted. As a temporary measure, as a tool we can use to navigate our way through the corona lockdown period, technology fosters much-needed community and a sense of being connected to one another. But despite what may be said of it, it does not seem capable of replacing human intimacy. The Covid-19 lockdown period and the crises it has precipitated have made apparent the ways in which technology can augment but not replace our lives. This has made human intimacy feel all the more precious to me.

Conversing with my partner as a flat, rectangular presence on the screen, I was overwhelmed by the ways in which he felt close and yet illusory. The sound of his voice, the rotation of his head, those recognisable facial tics brought him to me. And yet there was also the uncanny, distant sensation of him as an image captured in a box, out of reach to the senses. A copy of a copy, as it were.

This elusive sense has been heightened at this time, I think, only because I am starved, as we all are, of the mundane interactions we usually have on a daily basis that require proximity and casual contact and that we participate in without thinking: bumping against a stranger at the grocery store; sharing a meal with a friend in your favourite restaurant; enacting the rituals of life at the gym, in the classroom, on the street.

It is amazing just how much human contact we usually engage in almost on a daily basis even in our contemporary, isolated lives. The lockdown has made what I previously believed to be my introverted life feel like a wondrous existence. As I make essential runs to the grocery store and to the park for exercise in the present climate, I am disoriented by how deserted and devoid of human presence the world around me is. Strangers whose proximity has been integral to my sense of being human are now missing bodies.

Meanwhile, those who are currently putting their lives at risk by providing essential services, such as healthcare workers, grocery and pharmacy operators as well as those working in the food industry, but who we have as a society taken for granted, rendering them “missing bodies” even as they are ever-present, have come into stark focus. Their lives and the unequal and discriminatory ways in which society has structured the notion of work and value have become apparent in ways that are shocking and painful. We are now faced with questions of the meaning of work, whose work is “important” and whose isn’t, according to who and why – toxic ways of living couched in the pretty name of progress can no longer be ignored. We can no longer pretend not to see the bodies around us.

The signals that we as a species have evolved over time become redundant: our unconscious body movements, our tics, the intimacy that proximity allows, the spontaneity it enables, the creative energy it cultivates and the electricity it creates in a room.

The absence of bodies and their much-needed wisdom has been apparent in the atmosphere of the online classroom. I am a professor and teach creative writing here in the USA. Technology has been invaluable in helping us transition into and manage this disorienting period. I am grateful to my students and the ways we continue to find creative ways of wielding virtual communication, in the sensitive ways they continue to show up for and support one another.

Writing during this time, like much of the arts, can serve as a therapeutic and incisive way of dealing with a shared calamity and the various ways it is impacting and influencing us. I appreciate the nuances that art affords; laughter and pain, humor and irony, wit and satire – the infinite, complex human ways we are all experiencing the world during this time. In addition to writing, I have taken up drawing and gaming, things I haven’t done in years, and that have helped modulate my emotions and my psyche during the current crisis.

The knowledge that the Covid-19 lockdown is temporary has kept me, and I think a lot of us, going. And yet the sudden, extreme and prolonged nature of being isolated feels like a rehearsal for a certain kind of dystopian future in which the virtual classroom is a norm. I shudder at such a prospect; technology, for all the ways it “equalises” us on the screen – we become rectangular blocks taking up the same amount of space, as it were – also serves to mystify inequality.

There is a certain antiseptic quality to the virtual classroom that I imagine would, if it became a normalised feature of all education, replacing rather than augmenting our bodily presence, become a sort of virus of its own on the human spirit. We are there and yet not there, our heads bopping on a screen, our voices at times lagging behind, raising hands and rushing to mute and unmute ourselves, speaking at the same time, stuttering, apologising, hesitating, flat and yet with the appearance of depth, within reach and yet without.

The subtle, complex signals that we as a species have evolved over time become redundant: our unconscious body movements, our tics, the intimacy that proximity allows, the spontaneity it enables, the creative energy it cultivates and the electricity it creates in a room. Missing as well is the messiness that is also a necessary part of human interaction and that the ideal university as a physical space simulates and interrogates, invites and revolutionises.

Online learning as the main mode of education would represent the ultimate commercialisation of the university – a nightmare for the liberal precepts of education. A virtual classroom, for instance, facilitates a pseudo-diversity, where there is diversity without the presence of diversity, lacking the transgressive body and its social norms, particularly the non-white body, which is still today a pathological site of dehumanisation and whose proximity becomes a glorious, necessary affront to inequality and prejudice: its clothes, its smells, its food, its accents, its languages, its assertions.

When I leave the online classroom here in the US and speak with friends and relatives back in South Africa and Zimbabwe, I am reminded of how technology not only mystifies but also augments inequality. Not every space is able to implement virtual learning. Even in institutions that can do so in South Africa and here in the US, students do not have equal access to the internet. Not all students can afford internet costs, or a home environment that is amenable to participating in the online classroom, or access to learning materials.

In South Africa, with its widespread and stark economic disparities, institutions such as the University of the Witwatersrand are doing an amazing job of anticipating barriers to virtual learning and enabling their students: course lessons are being made available online to students without their needing internet data to access them; students who don’t have laptops or mobile access can apply to have gadgets sent to them on loan by the university; those in even more extreme circumstances can request to have printed modules sent to them.

These kinds of institutional resources are a privilege not all spaces of higher learning in South Africa and elsewhere can afford. These are resources that the university as a physical space has been forced to deal with via the bodily presence of students and the visible needs of these bodies. The presence of the student body in the university has been an effective site of protest against inequality and discrimination. As a long-term feature, the rectangular spaces we occupy on the screen of the online classroom could very well, as “equalisers” of our virtual selves, render the body and its radical functions impotent.

I am now recovering from my personal crisis. I was able to go into the hospital and get the help I needed. What has felt most important to me at this time is staying connected with others in intimate and uplifting ways. I video-conference with my therapist twice a week. I connect with my students via online classes, where we experiment with ways to build camaraderie during this difficult period. I speak with friends and family regularly, and with my partner daily. I live alone, and hence these interactions have become important for me and my well being, enabling me in turn to show up for others. I feel my mind preparing my body, and my spirit, for the long haul.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Bulawayo-born writer whose 2019 novel, House of Stone, won the Edward Stanford Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Orwell Prize and the Folio Prize. The New York Times said: “Tshuma’s brilliant layering of competing images and metaphors is one of the many marvels of this wise and demanding novel ... a remarkable feat … ambitious and ingenious.”