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Editor's note: This essay was written in June 2020, at the height of the UK's first national lockdown.
Proxemics: the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture. - Edward T Hall, (1966) The Hidden Dimension.
t has been noted of late that the so-called social distancing we are currently observing should be renamed. Whilst our physical proximity is quite rightly circumscribed due to COVID-19, our social lives, and even our social bodies, remain connected. Such is the hope if we are to re-emerge vaguely intact once a measure of normality is resumed. It is worth noting, however, that measures of normality are politically contested, and how people experience distance from one another is determined by a range of social and economic conditions. Nonetheless, distance is always felt: it’s felt by the person who craves solitude; it’s felt by the person enlivened in the crowd.
How, then, are we feeling about distance today? Might life in lockdown present us with an opportunity to think about our diverse proxemics settings? If social distancing is in fact a physical affair, what might we want to say about its psychical dimensions? How can we register those distances that are not observable to the naked eye, that are not accounted for in feet and inches, but that are nonetheless keenly experienced when practices of sociability and intimacy are re-drawn?
Working as a psychoanalyst, I am often struck by the difficulty of gauging how far away a patient is, although physically in my consulting room we’re never more than a few feet apart. This conundrum has changed complexion recently. Patients who would normally travel to see me, driving, walking, taking public transport, are now calling in from their private, or semi-private, rooms. In a strange way, this means I am now also going to them. I sit in the usual spot – same room, same chair, same blank wall behind me – yet something important has changed in how we are registering our distance from one another.
For some patients, a feeling of closeness might be enhanced when their therapist’s disembodied voice travels through headphones into their ears. Perhaps the familiarity of their own space – the settee where they watch TV, the desk from which they conduct work calls, the study-bedroom where they do nearly everything – induces a feeling of intimacy, or maybe even command, that’s more accessible at home than in my consulting room. For others, however, the new frame makes something harder to reach – the feeling that I am truly there perhaps, or that we’re having a real conversation rather than merely ‘connecting’. It may be that the technology of the encounter moves us too close to other, everyday exchanges such as Skyping with friends or Zooming with colleagues, and therefore too far away from the rather odd and potentially awkward dimensions of the psychotherapeutic scene.
One thing that the global pandemic has shown us is that when physical bodies are out of reach, technology is close at hand. The plethora of platforms upon which we can now “meet”, “connect”, and “carry on the conversation” has allowed many people to keep going with their everyday interactions. And yet how easily we can recognize that whilst such media facilitate us, they also create obligations. I am reminded of Freud’s disinclination to celebrate technology’s claim to “conquer distances” in Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930). He writes of his parental pleasure at being able to hear the voice of his child who lives hundreds of miles away, yet drily remarks that were it not for the technology of modern life, including the accomplishments of train travel, his child would “never have left his native town and [he] should need no telephone to hear his voice” (88). According to Freud the modern-day everyman is thus a “prosthetic god”, a paradoxical figure whose “newly won power over space and time” also works to inhibit his happiness (Freud, 87-8).
The critic Sherry Turkle has shown how the discontents of ‘connectivity’ are troubling us now. Exploring how technology and online life have altered our expectations and experiences of sociability and intimacy, Turkle insists on a qualitative difference between connection and conversation: in digital culture the former has gained ground on the latter with the consequence being that human capacities for solitude and for empathy are being diminished. In principle, psychotherapy exists as an outlier in this landscape, offering a site of resistance to an “always on” culture. Or at least, it may have done when it could be assumed that two bodies were able to meet and experience their co-presence without technological mediation.
Freud, of course, missed out on doing digital psychoanalysis, but, given that his cultural appraisals are never far removed from clinical experience, we might consider the fate of his “prosthetic god” in the current, COVID-19-troubled, psychotherapeutic landscape. With the power of the internet at their fingertips, their communicative capacities extended by new media forms, how do patient and therapist work-through the promises and disappointments of technology in a time of social distancing? The central complexity of Freud’s thought is that no single technology can be the primary cause nor the ultimate solution to the problem of social distance. What technology can do, however, is agitate us into thinking and feeling distance differently.
One of the more diffuse consequences of COVID-19 is that it has forced many people to reconsider the taken-for-granted rhythms of their existence. Most obviously there is the two-meter etiquette of social distancing. But I have also been hearing of people’s incredulity at their physical behaviors: moving cautiously into public areas they’d otherwise negotiate without a second’s thought; noticing how spaces contract or expand when time is slowed down; becoming clumsy when they are suddenly out of touch with the familiar objects that surround them. My own response has been to encounter the gaps left by my patients. The dimensions of my room feel different now: bodies no longer enter and exit, and I sit alone opposite a large screen. Recently, in a strange mood, I searched out my tape-measure. I was curious to know how the positioning of my furniture measured up against the COVID-culture’s new norm. I measured just over 2 meters between my chair and my patients’ chair; and a mere 70 centimeters between my chair and my patients’ couch. Close enough for contagion.
It was Edward T Hall, the American cultural anthropologist working in the 1960s, who first coined the term “proxemics” to refer to the study of man’s perception and use of space. Working with a scale of physical measurement, Hall proposes four “distance classifications" which underlie European and American manners: intimate; personal; social-consultive; and public. Each classification conveys possibilities of bodily feeling and movement. Significantly, this zonal logic varies from culture to culture: what is considered “social-consultive” in one setting might be deemed “intimate” elsewhere. As Hall explains:
Physical contact between people, breathing on people or directing one's breath away from people, direct eye contact or averting one's gaze, placing one's face so close to another that visual accommodation is not possible, are all examples of the kind of proxemic behavior that may be perfectly correct in one culture and absolutely taboo in another. (Hall, 1968: 88)
To emphasize the role that cultural difference plays in establishing the do’s and don’ts of proxemics, Hall writes of contact cultures and non-contact cultures. We might note though that such distinctions are temporal as well as spatial, as the current pandemic makes plain.
COVID-19 has radically undermined the taken-for-granted spacing behaviors that organize the conditions of possibility for our co-existing; it has, in other words, destabilized the proxemics settlement we live by. As neighbors, lovers, friends, family members, work-colleagues, consumers, state dependents, global citizens and more, we are now doing distance differently. This demands both a rethinking, and, critically, a refeeling of the tacit assumptions that maintain the social order. As the risk levels in everyday life have intensified, new taboos have been created. To cough – or worse, to fail to catch your cough – when in proximity to another person, or to travel further than certain recommended distances for your daily exercise are both now potentially transgressive acts.
So, how does this newly destabilized etiquette translate into the clinic? We might venture that everyday life is only now catching up with psychoanalysis; after all, the risk of contagion is a necessary part of the talking cure. It is encouraged that a patient in therapy feels able to be impolite, to encroach on the imagined personal space of the analyst. In Hall’s schema, two bodies positioned approximately 2 meters apart – such as the body in my chair and, in normal circumstances, the body in my patient’s chair – would be classified as being in the “social-consultive” zone. We are, in Hall’s language, “out of interference distance”, and only by “reaching” can one of us just about manage to “touch” the other.
Yet, psychologically speaking, when we sit in the same room together it is simply not the case that my patients and I are “out of interference distance”, rather we co-exist in perpetual risk of crossing-over from one proxemics settlement to another. Psychoanalysis depends upon this possibility of transgression. Indeed, many conventional critiques of screen-facilitated therapy emphasize this dependence: Screen-work (Skype, Zoom, FaceTime etc.), according to some, falsely stabilizes the proxemics underlying the clinical relation by fixing and flattening possibilities of movement. The psychoanalyst Gillian Isaacs Russell, a researcher in this field, offers the following apt reflection from one of her patient-participants: “When you share a physical space, even when you don’t act it out, there is always the potential to touch, whether that means kicking or kissing” (2015, 39, my emphasis). There’s certainly something to this: psychoanalytic work is wrought upon the paradox of potentiality, which is also always a spatial concern.
As the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott first articulated it, the zone of potentiality is delineated as an in-between space (or transitional space), bridging the internal landscape of fantasy with the outside reality of the physical world. It is the space of play, of illusion, and, ultimately for Winnicott, of cultural life itself. Importantly, only by succeeding to create and inhabit this intermediate area between the subjective and the objective can an individual first achieve, and then remain in contact with, a sense of feeling truly alive. Spaces of potentiality, including the space of the clinic, extend the fundamental drama of early human relationships. What’s key to this drama is that the infant gets to experience and experiment with their emerging sense of selfhood as both distanced from (separation), and connected to (union) their primary care-giver and love-object (a figure better known to Winnicott as the “good enough mother”). Through a repertoire of care, the good enough mother handles the give and take – the pulling and pushing – of dependency, aggression, love, and hate. By making space, in other words, the mother and infant begin to get the measure of each other.
That the early growing pains of separation are characterized by an unconscious negotiation of distance becomes critical when we consider the possibility of absence. If something is too far away – as in, far beyond reach – then it takes a huge degree of trust, gained through experience, to believe that it still even exists. Out of sight out of mind is a dangerous state of affairs for the infant. One classic response to the potential disappearance of a love-object is its destruction – You think you can leave me, not if I destroy you first! It is important to note here that we are still in the zone of potentiality, so the illusion created around the infant’s control over the object (their intent to possess and/or destroy it) must never be fully realised. In fact, all the infant’s experiments in feeling alive through negotiations of distance – collapsing distance by merging with the object, extending it by banishing the object, eradicating it by destroying the object – have one thing in common: the strict but secret requirement that the love-object withstand the experiment. Or, to express the same idea in a more recognizably Winnicottian idiom, it is imperative that the mother survive the infant’s “ruthless love” (Winnicott, 1949: 73).
When the zone of potentiality is transferred to the consulting room, infantile experiments are restaged upon the figure of the therapist. But as Isaacs Russell notes, “[i]n “screen relations”, the patient can never truly test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (Isaacs Russell, 37). If the therapist can be switched off, shut down or minimized by the click of a button, it becomes harder for the patient to have confidence in her capacity to withstand their aggression, or, indeed, to feel and to trust in her aliveness. Which means, in the context of COVID-19, there is an irony at work: the very technological intervention designed to secure the therapist’s life (“stay at home, save lives”), may, for the patient, threaten her effective existence, because, from the patient’s perspective, the therapist needs to be potentially kill-able just as much as kick-able or kissable.
Conventionally understood, then, therapy depends on the therapist being physically close enough to activate the patient’s fantasy-life, and it seems like this may have been jeopardized by the imposition of social distancing measures. Clearly, today, in the time of a global pandemic, when we have no option but to use technology, the analyst’s survivability must be reckoned with anew. If it’s true to say that the world is only now catching up with therapy – registering its logic of contagion, its unsettled proxemics, its ubiquitous negotiation of taboo and threat of physical transgression – it has also, for a while at least, made a certain version of therapy impossible. The question, as many have been asking, is how do we respond to this new state of affairs?
Therapy trades in the possibility of change. It is slow, and often uncertain work, but when it does work, change occurs. As a process, it involves investing in a future that’s imaginable as inhabitable – a sense that there will be another session, there will be time ahead of us, there will be some life left to live. One of the confusing consequences of COVID-19 is just how disorienting time now feels. Against the backdrop of death, mourning and anxiety, I have also been hearing about how my patients are adapting to what we might call a new crisis-presentism. Its symptoms, which may be expressed through their lock-down dreams, include a sense of suffocation in spaces that are over-burdened with multiple demands, compressed and re-purposed to accommodate new stresses; disappointment at suspended life-plans (weddings, new jobs, summer vacations) met with guiltily feelings about perspective - in the larger scale of things, it just shouldn’t matter; fatigue and frustration with the flat-packed sociability that brings all bodies into view via a standardized window; or growing alienation from a routine that no longer offers a distinction between Tuesday and Friday night. The detail might be small but the significance is vast: time is being lived without a sense of an open horizon. If this is narrated as a stuck-ness, or an out-of-sync-ness, then the ‘symptom’ does not quite belong to the patient (though it will be uniquely expressed by the patient nonetheless). It makes sense to ask how therapy itself might have to change when, as the psychotherapist Gary Greenberg recently put it, the ‘trauma is not hidden in the mists of time, but right here, in the midst of life?’. Registering the losses and anxieties, the radical uncertainties, as well as anticipating the mourning-work that’s still to come, is what psychoanalysis is good at, and surely this is more important now than ever. But it takes time.
As the window closes on the computer screen at the end of a session, and my patient is denied their transitional journey home, I’m left thinking about risk. It may seem a perverse position in the middle of a pandemic, to be missing risk, when risk has seldom been more culturally important. And yet, as a therapist, every time I see myself on the computer screen I’m concerned that the technology which secures my image at a distance, also renders me too faint to be useful. The question I find myself asking is how, as a psychotherapeutic community, but also as a society more generally, can we find ways of feeling truly alive at a distance?
To adapt the Freudian thought mentioned above, that modern technology agitates us into feeling differently, we might also consider how technology agitates us into language differently. A small example: When a patient I’m now meeting on Skype recently sent me a ‘hello’ emoticon, to let me know they’d arrived for their call, I was mildly shocked.
The uniform, smiling yellow face, that popped up to wave at me on the screen bore no resemblance to the communicative tropes and images that usually pass between us. If the emoticon was designed to function as a distancing mechanism, to replace words and remove risk from the articulation of emotion, on this occasion it also expressed a different intimacy, a new and perhaps naïve proximity that drew attention to the spaces where language takes place. From here, my patient and I were, albeit briefly, thrown into novel speculations as to how the dimensions of our conversation might be extended.
When change and loss go together, what is absent looms large. In socially distanced therapy the ghost in the room is the body, or, more particularly, bodily relations. In the consulting room, patients’ bodies may be awkward, standoffish, vulnerable, painful to inhabit, and difficult to sit with (they may also be at ease, animated or excitable); but in all their potentiality they help create and carry the feelings that can bring a person to life. They do so, crucially, in collaboration with language. Therefore, in addition to regretting what we’ve lost as we adapt to remote modes of conversation, we must also make space to consider what we still have. As psychoanalysis has always insisted, we have bodies that speak (and are spoken); and, as a consequence, we are always being touched by words.
It’s not difficult to hear, idiomatically, how bodies are spoken in language. Occasionally, we may need a bit more elbow room, or breathing space, and the things that are difficult to say may be just at the tip of our tongues - come on, spit it out! With its repertoire of protrusions and potential projectile objects, the body emerges through language as a negotiation of distance and its potentialities. Edward Hall knew this when he devised the zonal logic of proxemics. The negotiation of interpersonal interaction is calculated from the base unit of an “arm’s length” (“social-consultive”), which is considerably less than a “stone’s throw” (“public”), and just a tad more than a “spit away” (“intimate”) (Deza & Deza, 2012: 509). Psychoanalysis troubles the idea that there can be a clear correlation between these “distance classifications” and the felt-experience of being with another person. Rather, in the clinic, the possibility of contact, interference and contagion are not in any simple sense put beyond reach by the physical location of our bodies. Whether my patient and I are sat in my consulting room or hundreds of miles apart, we’re still attending to the shifting space between us where the potential to impact the other persists with our words. Which is to say, there is body and force in language itself, and so always the risk of transgression. As I continue to spend time with my patients, framed by the four corners of the screen, I’m reminded that, for all that’s changed, our words don’t have to be in lockdown. Indeed, among its many disturbing consequences, the practices of social distancing that have come in with COVID-19 might present us with an opportunity: while physical separation is enforced, we have the chance to re-encounter the physicality of our language, and continue to risk feeling alive in words.
Deza, MM & Deza, E (2012) Encyclopaedia of Distances. Berlin Heidelberg, Springer-Verlag.
Hall, ET (1990 ) The Hidden Dimension. New York, Anchor Books.
--. (1968) ‘Proxemics [and Comments and Replies]’ in Current Anthropology. Vol. 9, No. 2/3: pp. 83-108.
Freud, S (1930) Civilisation and Its Discontents. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931): The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, pp 57-146.
Issacs Russell, G (2015) Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London, Karnac Books.
Turkle, S (2017 ) Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other. New York, Basic Books.
Winnicott, DW (1949) ‘Hate in the Counter-Transference’ in International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 30: pp 69-74.
Julie Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex, UK, and a Psychoanalyst in private practice.