Place and Space

Reading Space

Saturday, 4th April 2020

I tell my students that the spaces they move through are texts, or at least are textualizable, that is, they can be made into texts (maybe they can be made into other things too, but at least texts). In fact I even wrote about this (sorry for the self-promotion here, but the paper is linked).

So I’m aware of the textuality of space as I move through it during the pandemic. I’m aware of all the instructions about social/physical distancing and isolation. What strikes me, though, is the confusing and contradictory text in social space right now.

Examples: I’m out on the trail, early in the morning, running or walking, depending on my mood. It might suggest something too rustic to call it a trail – it’s mostly a paved path, about 8 feet or so wide. If we’re taking the 6 foot rule seriously, plenty of room to move.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there who just don’t seem to care about that rule. They come much closer when passing. Bikers in particular seem to think that it doesn’t apply to them. They can fly past within a foot or so.

But the obvious rulebreakers aren’t the ones who interest me. What’s interesting is that in social space, we need to both observe these rules, but also be seen to be doing so, and also communicate with others, even passively, that the path is a safe space.

My solution to this? As far as I can tell, it is a unique solution, in that I have yet to see anyone else doing it. I often walk in the ditch or on the grass beside the path. This isn’t a claim of moral superiority on my part; what I’m interested in is space as a text that we are all reading. I want others to read me as saying that they are safe with me around. As far as I know, I don’t have the virus – no symptoms, have been isolated for a long time now. But they don’t know that, and I don’t know them. And so, in that absence of knowledge, I need to try to communicate something.

There are other ways. Lots of people are nodding, waving, trying to be friendly. That’s great. Sometimes it is sincere, sometimes I suspect it’s something else, more like “hey bro, we’re out here together because we know this whole virus panic thing is overblown and clearly you get it like I do.” Yeah, no, that’s not how I want to be read, but there’s always a hermeneutic of suspicion going on, that is, a way of reading that isn’t about what I’m trying to communicate, but instead what I’m communicating despite my best efforts to hide it. I think I’m being virtuous, maybe I’m just another don’t-give-a-fuck guy who’s living my own life, who cares what the guvmint says. Well, I hope I’m not being read like that, but I can’t really help it if I am.

I’m out there to read something other than my fellow humans. There’s a reason I go out early in the morning. It’s before most of the cars, and most of the people. What I want to read is the bird activity, and other animals. I want to “read” the “olfactory poems” that Aldo Leopold talked about when he observed his dog out on a walk early in the morning with him, following invisible paths and barking at completely unseen and mysterious things. The text was different for his dog, but no less real. I want some of those texts, in a time of control, in a time when we are trying to flatten curves and pull this weird viral perturbation in our systems back into proper orbit.

And so, my walks have a narrative, a kind of trajectory. I start in the dark, with these little lights on my shoes that cast elongated shadows on the path, and send little creatures scurrying. About 45 minutes in, daybreak happens, and the birds kick into high gear. Still very few out at this point – some bikes, moving fast, and a few regulars who I’m trying to get to know by name (by introducing myself, no hand-shaking of course). The sun comes up as I go past ponds and lakes, and the shorebirds are wading around, and the occasional gator makes an appearance. And the olfactory poems are there too, although I’d need a dog to really understand those.

By the time the sun’s up, others are out, and I’m back in the mode of textualizing myself for others, walking in ditches. Some of them think I’m weird, I’m sure. No matter. I can’t control their reading of me, but I hope that they recognize that one plausible reading is that I’m trying to say to them, you’re safe with me here. And I’m hoping that we all learn how to do that, not just follow rules but to be legible to others, that we’re safe with each other in these times.

It’s a big ask, especially in Florida where some people seem to still disbelieve that anything’s happening. That won’t last long. But if we’re going to have a social fabric that can sustain us through all this, it will have to be based on our ability to read and understand the space we’re in, and not just revert to mistrust and reductionist readings of each other. That’s the kind of mistrustful, superficial reading that we’ve incentivized and valorized for years now, the kind in which we read charitably only when people are in our group, and we read uncharitably at all other times. And that’s what we can’t afford anymore, not that we ever really could.

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