The Loneliness of Herds

by Dr Sinéad Murphy

There is a bench alongside the footpath as you walk down St Thomas Street towards Newcastle’s city centre – one of those benches on which we were forbidden to sit not much more than one year ago, lest our lingering there should increase the viral load of the open air.

At some point between then and now, we were allowed to sit on benches once again, though exactly when and how and with whom are unclear, determined by subsections of caveats of government decrees of such ambiguous legality that one would have to be unusually dogged to ferret them out.

Many have sat on them, notwithstanding the regulatory fog. Many have perched at either end in rain and hail and snow, sipping coffees over sodden masks.

But now our benches are returned to us in earnest. We may sit on them whenever we wish. For however long we wish. And with whomever we wish. Just as we used to.

Except not just as we used to. The bench on St Thomas Street is hung with a new sign, attached to the back of one of its four sections. It reads “Happy to chat bench” with an outline underneath of two people sitting and talking on a bench.

Our benches are returned to us, but with a new set of opportunities attached. When we sit on them, we can be either “happy to chat” or not “happy to chat”, and we can identify as such before we have sat down and before anyone with whom we might chat has arrived on the scene.

A heretofore casual possibility subtly woven into the fabric of daily life – chatting – is reconstituted as a formal opportunity complete with its own messaging.

During the period in which chatting on a public bench was against the rules, it seems it has been divested of its spontaneity and its subtlety; now that it is returned to us, we find it cleansed of these human qualities, being yet another branded option advertised to us as an opportunity by the messaging of a state sponsored initiative.

It will be an opportunity that almost nobody avails themselves of. There is something so leaden about identifying as ‘chatty’ and sitting expectantly for ‘a chat’.

Something so uncertain too: the reconstitution of chatting as a signed and supported opportunity makes it suddenly fraught with ambiguities.

It turns out that recasting a previously indistinct possibility as an utterly distinct opportunity has the effect, not of making it more clear, but of making it more murky.

It should be simple to negotiate a situation that is made entirely explicit and comes with signage, but it is not. Because having set at naught our well-honed faculties for the implicit negotiation of informal human encounters, no messaging can ever be comprehensive enough to produce the clarity that it promises in their stead.

Has the person sitting on the “Happy to chat bench” sat there on purpose to chat and are they completely indiscriminate about whom they chat to? Did they see the sign before they slumped onto the seat? If they are sitting on the section of the bench with the sign posted to it, then they are at least partially obscuring the sign from the view of passers-by. Does that mean they’d prefer not to chat to complete strangers, thank you very much? The difficulties abound.

The irony is that we are much more sure of ourselves in implicit human interactions than we are in explicit centrally-administered interactions.

Things can go wrong, of course, even in the implicit human mode. We can turn to talk to someone and find that they are not in the mood to talk, or cannot speak English, or have earphones in and cannot hear us. But the mortifying effect of these errors in judgment reveals just how rarely they happen.

We are practised at casual human encounters. They arise for us in contexts in which almost everything is already clear. We read their cues without effort, mostly even without knowing that we’re doing it.

By contrast, we are wrong-footed by centrally-administered encounters; the number of directives required for our easy negotiation of them is impossible to generate. And anyway, there is neither room on the back of a bench to post them nor time as you pass it by to read them.

The theme of the herd has been a pivotal one during this past year-and-a-half. Are we pursuing the immunity of the herd or are we horrified by the prospect of it? Are we merely following along with everyone else like a herd animal, or are we joining the collective effort out of a higher, human nobility?

Either way, it is the herd – and more specifically, the herd of sheep – that has haunted our Covid efforts.

But a central aspect of the theme of the herd is the motif of the stray lamb, the one who falls out of step, who drifts off, who is not with the programme. This wayward creature is an outrage to the herd and must at all costs be brought back into the fold – how many of our culture’s fables repeat this imperative!

It is no coincidence, therefore, that in this time of the herd, it is the relatively aimless, drifting, casual option of chatting that has presented itself as requiring to be brought under careful management; its open-ended spontaneity is precisely the kind of recalcitrance to cause the herd to begin to fray about the edges.

Indeed, as we progress through the Covid phases, it is our most casual human behaviours that are, one by one, being reined in and brought in line. In September 2020, the Government banned what it termed “mingling” and even encouraged the public to report on neighbours if they saw them do it. At the beginning of this month, the Italian city of Florence forbade its tourists from “wandering” through the city in the evening time, enjoining them to make their way to and from their hotel with a purposeful stride. And only last week, Daniel Andrews, premier of the state of Victoria in Australia, confirmed that, by contrast with New South Wales, all “browsing” was outlawed in his jurisdiction.

The general trajectory is evident: capture the ways in which we live informally together in the world, and return them, if and when the time comes to do so, sanitized of their subtlety and spontaneity, clearly signposted and under formal controls.

Is all that unfolds between us in the cut and thrust of living to be thus laundered, returned to us as a simply messaged and illustrated ‘opportunity’? Are we to concede our capacities for casually being together in the world to such a glut of government-corporate signage that it will be as if we are reading the subtitles of our daily lives, with all of the stiltedness and the self-conscious hesitancy that follows?

Is every possibility into which we have heretofore pleasantly and thoughtlessly strayed to be anonymously and carefully mapped out so that we stick with the programme, so that we stay with the herd?

It so happens that our house is festooned with signage of the “Happy to chat bench” variety. Laminated sheets on which the basic scenarios of life are illustrated in outline, with key words written clearly underneath. Tap On, One Hand, Other Hand, Soap, Rub, Rub, Rub, One Hand, Other Hand, Tap Off, Dry Hands.

My little boy is autistic; the simplest of life’s tasks and encounters need to be broken down and described for him, so that he is supported in producing appropriate behaviours, to which (it is hoped) he will eventually become habituated. For whatever reason, he cannot learn these things as others learn them. He cannot read the cues. None of it is casual.

The autism professionals who advise us refer to this signage as “scaffolding”. The image is a good one, reflecting the need to prop up and buttress tasks and interactions that would otherwise present as too informal, too loosely woven, to be negotiated.

As we have made our way in the Covid world, and followed the arrows and stood on the stickers and kept our ‘distance’, as we are prodded even still by the Government’s cartoonish messaging – “Hands, Face, Space”; “Happy to chat” – are we reframed as autistics for whom the casual tasks and encounters of life are too subtle – too implicit – to be negotiated?

The term ‘autism’ derives from the Greek word for ‘self’. It is a condition of profound aloneness. Yet the herd is quite the opposite – a condition of radical togetherness.

Is there a new brand of togetherness abroad that is not exclusive of a new brand of aloneness? Is the herd mentality that has been so touted in this Covid more-than-year somehow also an autistic mentality?

“Together Apart” was one of the first, and widely broadcast, of the Government’s Covid messages. Are we continuing to live out its implications, as we are nudged towards kinds of living together that are so cleansed of all true companionship that they leave us isolated and at a loss? Is the new fashion for engineering our togetherness consigning us to the loneliness of a manufactured crowd?

The collective author, The Invisible Committee, of a book called Now from two years before Covid, described a kind of togetherness that they judged to be available on the platforms of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. When we chat in the boxes of these tech giants, when we browse their pages and surf their nets and mingle with the friends they help to connect us with, for all that our actions and interactions are framed as easy, casual, user-friendly, they are, so The Invisible Committee observed, in fact carefully prescribed. “Everyone cloistered in their signifying bubble”: the contents for chat, already available; the options to admire and to buy, already directed; the channels for surfing, already laid out; the friends for mingling with, already suggested.

In these bubbles for seemingly-casual encounters, we are “immunized against any real contact” the Invisible Committee proposed. There is togetherness – yes. But such prepared togetherness that no really causal encounter can take place.

And now, with the “Happy to chat bench” and its like, is the fourth wall broken of the screened atomization that The Invisible Committee described? Is the brand of isolation that they identified as a feature of our actions and interactions in the virtual world rolled out to our actions and interactions in the material world?

On the “Happy to chat bench” we are cloistered in precisely the kind of “signifying bubble” that The Invisible Committee claimed to be available online, as we take the opportunity to be “happy to chat” with someone else who is “happy to chat”, an opportunity from which all that is spontaneous and sure is removed and only what is programmed remains.

The more we sit on these benches, the more me take up the opportunities that they advertise, the more we accept their programmed possibilities as a substitute for human encounters, the more isolated we will feel. As The Invisible Committee predicted, the more friends we will make on them and meet on them, the more autistic we will be.

At the bottom of the sign on the bench on St Thomas Street is printed the logo of “Collaborative Newcastle” which describes itself as “an innovative new partnership” aiming “to improve the health, wealth, and wellbeing of everyone in the City”.

But the kind of collaboration determined by “Collaborative Newcastle” is, as The Invisible Committee expressed it, collaboration without contact, collaboration so engineered that there is no real connection at all, collaboration in which the so-called ‘distancing’ that has blighted these times is woven into the very fabric of the social interactions to which it ought to be anathema.

And if not only chatting but mingling too, and not only mingling but wandering too, and not only wandering but browsing too, are eventually reengineered as stock possibilities to be realized according to ready-made, simply outlined options, the eventual effect will be a life of cohabitation without contact, of living together in the world at a distance from each other and the world

In 2017, The Invisible Committee advised the following:

Leave home, take to the road, go meet up with others, work towards forming connections, whether conflictual, prudent, or joyful. Organising ourselves has never been anything else than loving each other.

In 2021, we might tailor their advice, and observe that organizing ourselves is nothing other than chatting, and mingling, and wandering, and browsing outside of the times and spaces in which we are being carefully scaffolded, and so refusing the cohabitation without contact, the together apartness, the social distance, the herd autism, that may, at present, be our fate.

Dr. Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

March 2024
Free Speech Union

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