on the amputation of infected members of society, III, day 20

I wrote that poverty is like a disease. But that it is one much easier to contain than COVID-19.

Although the same technologies are in practice engaged in containing it. These technologies include education and “contact tracing.” Among others: Rt. Hon. Ardern pointed to story-telling, a technique so venerable noone would dare question its morality. Story-telling can be shown to work in its absence, because if we can’t tell a story about how the disease came to be present–attributing it to credible causes–we must isolate, contain, but not necessarily treat, whoever has it.

You don’t have to get at a disease’s causes to know who is infected. They may be those whose narrative doesn’t fit. Imagine a terrorist who has no cause! It’s like an infection the transmission of which you cannot trace.

This is why “contact tracing” is included in the technologies of containment.

But overnight I began to doubt that poverty is like a disease, or that the comparison can reasonably be made between disease and poverty, especially during these “unprecedented times.”

Education is held up as some kind of cure for poverty. Story-telling might be. But does contact tracing apply?

I returned to thinking about my original inspiration in Gloria Kim’s use in a post to the <<empyre>> listserv of the term phantom touch. She used it to refer to the experience summoned through association–watching a movie where people are in physical contact–of feeling the touch of another, like a spectral caress. Not one’s own phantom limb but an other’s against one’s own.

If we are the virus, as the meme goes, who is this other, whose limb touch’s one’s own?

They are a member we, the virus, have cut off. But whose touch we still remember. It is recalled to us watching a movie, perhaps, the sensation of that touch.

As you saw from my previous post, this led to an association being made with society, to a society that, in Thatcher’s phrase, does not exist.

And so I asked if society were not itself a dead limb or a dying or dangerously infected one finally lopped off.

This led me to poverty. And to the question of our acceptance of society’s nonexistence reaching its conclusion in self isolation. We might say it reaches this conclusion by way of social distancing, familiar to anyone who has used a cellphone, now being a rule.

Social distancing is not quite a law. But seems in some places to be enforceable.

Social distancing might reasonably be said to mean distancing oneself from society just as self isolation means isolating oneself from it, cutting oneself off, or, in the phrase phantom touch, cutting the other off and cutting off other members of society.

If society does not exist, we are not members of society. We belong to communities. The Christchurch Shooter, you recall, was labelled one who did not belong. He did not belong in our community, said Rt. Hon. Ardern.

Years ago I remember being in New Caledonia, where I was billeted by a French family, in a beautiful white house on a hill.

One day, after breakfast, I remember I went out to explore the garden, which, because unfenced, seemed to me to be vast. It extended all the way down the hill, and in a gully I discovered a series of corrugated-iron-clad sheds or shacks, backing onto the hill.

I knew garden sheds from home, so thinking them unoccupied–I had seen smoke coming out of the chimney of one of them, but had dismissed this as a sign of habitation–the French family was all up in the house, anyway–I went around to the front. A whole Kanak family was there, three adults and several children.

I didn’t immediately recognise any of them because they were not wearing their uniforms. But then, after being spoken to severely by the man, one of the women came out, and I saw she was the French family’s maid. She was wearing a striped T-shirt, a brightly coloured skirt and had a saffron yellow scarf holding her hair back. The man was the gardener.

He wore dirty shorts and a short-sleeve collared shirt open to his waist. He had a stick or a poker and was poking the flames of a small fire with loose blackened rocks around it and a billy on a tripod above it in which something seemed to be cooking. Seafood maybe. It actually smelt really good.

The French family’s maid had served breakfast not so long ago, and she and I had chatted. I found her French easy to understand and she had been friendly. The French family were quite severe and opinionated when it came to French-New Caledonian affairs: they felt like they were treated as second-class citizens. But I remember the French Mum saying she went to Paris every year shopping.

The French family’s maid first tried to shoo me off. She told me I shouldn’t be there. But seeing that I didn’t understand, she started to smile and began to treat my being there as quite funny. She attempted to share the joke with the man, but he was not having it. He told her–I understood from his gestures–to get me away.

Now the woman who was the maid came right out and ushered me around the corner from where the kitchen was set up under the lean-to, and where these people obviously lived. And I went with her. I realised I had invaded their privacy and I felt guilty for that. But it was impossible to explain that in my country we have garden sheds but that people do not live in them.

This is the story tracing my contact with the infection of Kanak poverty. I could have had the experience in New Zealand. But I doubt the contrast would have been as great as that between the French family, all in white, in a white house, the son, slightly older than I was, I remember wore the whitest plimsolls I have ever seen, and the black family at the bottom of the garden.

I think I must’ve mentioned something to the French Mum, since she was more approachable than the Dad, behind his French newspaper, because I remember her face changing, her countenance as they say darkening. Do I really remember thinking she regarded me with suspicion from that point on, as something of a traitor, of class or of race?

Was the Club Méditerranée at Anse Vata really just being built when I was there? I seem to remember the French Dad pointing it out from the convertible he picked me up in to show off the coastline. I also remember delicious minty drinks being served on a magnesium white deck overlooking a deep blue swimming pool right on that coast, at the home of friends’ of the French family. I have tried to find out what that drink was ever since.

Lingis writes of the contagion of misery.

You might think it presumptuous or importunate to talk of poverty, misery and suffering as if they were transmissable diseases. That it does those who are afflicted out of something that is theirs and cannot be claimed be another not so afflicted.

But to see someone who is poor, who is suffering, who lives in misery or who is just miserable, is to catch something. It is to catch on to feelings that have no certainty, that leave one with no certainty of what to do or of what to feel. Guilt? Remorse? Sympathy?

Isn’t the meaning of society to see and to know there are people living at the bottom of the hill? to know how they live. Isn’t for a society to want to improve the conditions of those, not so one can feel good about oneself but good about the society one lives in? And isn’t it also to have mixed feelings, uncertain compassion, as Lingis writes? To not know what to feel. To know only that one has been called on to feel.

To not know how to act but to know one has been called on to act.

With the amputation of others in self isolation, with social distancing, we grow neglectful.

Our preexisting negligence or our inexcusable ignorance sees an opportunity. (As Rt. Hon. Ardern states with regard to the loss of 200 jobs in NZME, it is due to a preexisting condition.)

Worse than this, there can be no more solidarity with the poor, those in need, with problems, with the problems which define society; with the amputation of society, they are placed out sight, and like ghosts and phantoms, they become invisible.