Coronavirus, Adopted Cultures and Real Togetherness

At the end of March 2020 there is only one topic of conversation in the UK: coronavirus. It is affecting every aspect of life, public and private, work and play, mental and physical. It has meant social isolation for most of us. For some, such as old people living alone, this can be extreme, for others it means being cooped up with family or a partner for weeks on end. Thank God then for the virtual world of social media, Skype and Zoom, where so many interactions now take place: virtual work meetings, chess games, music lessons and even dates. But to what extent can such contact replace getting together with other people physically? Is this something we can get used to? Can it help us stay put, even after the epidemic is over, helping to address the challenge of climate change by massively reducing unnecessary travel and thus carbon emissions?

The present situation is merely an acceleration of what modern life has created in any case. Many of our interactions are via telecommunication, much communication is actually mass communication, and many of the communities with which we identify are virtual or “imagined”. But it is commonplace to observe that “the more connected we get, the more disconnected we feel”.  A world of almost exclusively virtual communication was created in fiction by E.M. Forster over a century ago in his short story The Machine Stops. In it, he describes a society of isolated individuals living in honeycomb-like structures who communicate with each other only via the kind of technologies we now take for granted, but which were then either brand new, or fanciful. In Forster’s account this is no Utopia and it doesn’t end well; when the technology begins to break down the overdependent population cannot survive.

When it comes to the benefits of actual physical contact and group activity, there is no shortage of research suggesting that these are plentiful. Touching can help a partner feel less pain, participation in group music makes elderly people happier and group sports has beneficial physical and psychological effects on adolescents. It is these kinds of contact that Adopted Cultural Practices such as salsa, yoga and capoeira typically involve. Mostly they require people to come together in the same space where they see each other and feel each other’s physical presence. This is enhanced by performing movements or music together, making us focus on our own bodies, and those of others. In yoga we are usually looking at a teacher whose movements we follow. In salsa a good deal of attention is on the dancing partner and here there is also actual contact. Moving or making music together with others is a way of emphasising physical togetherness, even without actually touching. This is something which is difficult to replicate over an internet medium, partly because of time-lag issues as those trying online music teaching have found to their frustration, but also because the sense of moving together is less meaningful without the actual presence of another body. We often synchronise with others in social situations without being aware of it by striking a similar pose as someone we are talking to, and of course, shaking hands, hugging and kissing are part of many social interactions, all of which are prohibited during the epidemic. Therefore, these are behaviours which we create, perform and seek out, and which are recreated in Adopted Cultural Practices, which may be one reason for their consistent popularity in an era of increasing indirect contact via media: they offer human interaction and cooperation which is ‘real’.

Which is ironic, because in many ways these practices are highly artificial. They consist of partitions of time and space where we attempt to become something other, something which we have to learn and strive for, something which often we are not. What this “something” is will vary. In yoga it might be suppleness, calmness and even spirituality; in salsa elegance, sensuality and rhythmicality. But more than this, we are at some level attempting to become Latin, African-Brazilian, Eastern.There is a sense of escape to another reality, another identity. We are looking for something real in an activity which has been constructed out of, and for, our imaginations. Perhaps this is why authenticity is so prized in many of the adopted practices. Learning to dance like they do in Cuba, or learning to do capoeira like Brazilians is often held up as the ultimate goal. The teachers, who frequently have direct experience of the practice in a source country are the conduits of this authenticity. Yet we can see that a group of Danish people doing capoeira in Denmark is never going to be the same thing as black Brazilians doing it on a beach in Bahia. For the Brazilians it is part of their history and it is part of the history of that place. The songs are in their language and they have practiced since their school days. And even so, anthropologists are wary of all claims of authenticity. They tend to regard traditions as invented, narratives as ideologically motivated and all identities as culturally constructed, leaving us with the sense that nothing is authentic; nothing is real.

Unfortunately however, the coronavirus is real, even though the way humans react to it is constructed out of the cultural, political, scientific and social context in which they find themselves. But there is no escaping that it is affecting all of us and taking a great many lives. We have no choice but to hide away and forego the real embodied connections with others that we enjoy and that enrich and fortify our lives. Adopted Cultural Practices have been suspended, showing those of us whose lives are bound up with them just how important they are.