Yunxiang Yan | September 1, 2020
Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace
The Presence of You in the Making of Me
Just before Hong Kong experienced its worst outbreak of Covid-19 in July, I joined a boat outing to a remote beach with a large group of people, many of whom I had never met before. The “junk trip” is a quintessential summertime activity for middle-class people like me. Someone rents a boat, everyone brings some food, and strangers become friends having together enjoyed sunshine and swimming for a full day.
Lots of conversation will take place given close proximity. One conversation I found myself in quickly turned to American politics, having started much lighter. My interlocuter, also an American expatriate, told me she is a proponent of small government, “because I prefer to have a direct intimate relationship with people.” I did not argue back, partly because I was stunned by the leap she made from government to intimacy. Later, I felt frustrated with myself for not asking her what she thinks about the role government plays in creating the conditions for people to have direct, intimate relationships – as a typical liberal might. Hasn’t Covid-19 made a clear case for good systems? Were we not enjoying, on that beautiful sunny day, something Americans no longer enjoy safely?
There is more to say about this conversation in light of Richard Madsen’s work on the culture war in the U.S., which has helped me to think more critically about my own position and to put it in the larger context of conflicting moral imaginaries. But here I will say something about social intimacy, which is something I have been thinking a lot about both in relation to my own research in China and also in relation to what has been lost in the pandemic.
In an essay titled “Together in the dark: what we miss about going to the movies,” film editor Walter Murch argues that even the best home system could not replace going to the movies, laughing and crying with strangers. “In the best circumstances,” Murch says, the cinematic experience “can paradoxically expand our consciousness and awareness of our commonality, sharpening our senses in the mass intimacy of the darkened theatre.” The bodily presence of others contributes to an experience that can be transcendent, even if momentary, but this co-presence depends on a social institution.
Murch’s insight is not an original one. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote long ago of something he called “collective effervescence.” Although Durkheim developed his theory with reference to an ethnographic account of an Arunta corroboree, his intention was to understand the basis of social solidarity. There is a way in which one becomes oneself by way of others in a ritual context, with affections lingering on long after the assembly is over (cf. William Mazzarella, The Mana of Mass Society).
The communal experience of cinema normally occurs in a commercial setting, but this need not be the case for communal experiences in general, and neither are churches the only other possibility. To give just one example, an essay published on-line by Vox in the wake of the murder of George Floyd mentions “wailing circles,” a community-organized safe space for women of color to process grief – both personal and vicarious grief. I do not know what a wailing circle looks or feels like, but the practice suggests just how indispensable the presence of others can be in healing trauma, particularly if grief is never verbalized let alone shared in a social setting. It can be quite a simple thing, i.e. togetherness, so long as there is something to support the assembly.
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