Touching the Untouchable: Connecting, Ethical Caring, and Teaching during Covid 19

by: & Ann Gagné , October 6, 2020

In the age of COVID-19, the removal of human touch has meant that many—the authors included—have had to consider new ways of connecting. How do we navigate our way through the world and around other bodies now? For us, an Australian and a Canadian, touch is a joint interest. Among other things, we are scholars of the tactile. Indeed, we met in 2013 at a conference on tactility in literature. The way we approach our work as scholars, and in Ann’s case as an educational developer, is often through the tactile and its connection to other senses. We have been, and continue to be, informed by an epistemological and phenomenological commitment to tactility. Being in lockdown, and having the privilege of working from home in recent months, has further highlighted to us the importance of touch. In our article, this recognition leads us to explore the pasts and the futures of touch. Touch is a sense that is particularly haunting now, in a time of social distancing.

In this article, our discussion of touch is interlaced with its relationship to sight. COVID-19 has shifted much of the world away from the experience of the former to the latter. Hence, after introducing the importance of exploring touch in this article, we turn to an examination of sight. We then combine these two senses into a discussion of haptic visuality, a term referring to a visuality that triggers physical memories of smell, touch, and taste (Marks 2000: 2). Finally, using the language of haptic visuality, we consider the state of trauma and the ethics of care in pedagogy and the university sector. As we note, the turn towards the visual in the absence of touch has led to an experience of both loss and trauma. ‘Haptic visuality implies a fundamental mourning of the absent object or the absent body’, notes visual media scholar Laura Marks (2000: 191). Our preoccupation with memories of tactility in a world of visuality is clearly informed by apprehensive thoughts of both current and future hauntings. What does the deprivation of skin-on-skin contact presage regarding ethical care and connection, the movement of hands, and our being in the world? We know that the future seems very unclear, but what is clear is that if we don’t take tactility or visuality into account, we will not have ways to engage through sense-meaning with the world around us. We will not have ways to acknowledge our trauma. Nor will we have new ways to educate or frame education, and reconfigure higher education. With more intentionality and awareness to center the sensory, we can expand our understanding of how the sensory literally intersects with our embodied negotiation of the world. How are we touching? What are we seeing? These are the paths to a more ethical citizenship.

Why touch?

Duc: Social media articles that Ann and I have exchanged focus on the importance of touch, and speculate about the mental health risks associated with isolation resulting from COVID-19-related injunctions for social distancing. For people like Ann and me, who live on our own and without access to sanctioned human touch, it is a topic that we have contemplated and embodied from the start. Because COVID-19 and, most recently, the worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have brought into sharp relief existing inequities and societal fissures, the question that resonates with us is: when will I be able to connect meaningfully with others again? Intertwined with current restrictions on physical touch, it is a question that affects many, regardless of geography, especially now when trauma has been amplified and care is sorely needed. In connecting these concerns with literature, I thought of the poet John Donne’s well-known proclamation written shortly after a serious illness, during a time of bubonic plague: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’ (1959: 108). What we read here is that we are ontologically the many in one. Consequently, our lives are made better by our being with others, and our existence is made expansive through tending relationships with our fellow humans. Perhaps most poignant in these times is Donne’s assertion that ‘any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’ (1959: 109). Donne forces us to consider how we might reduce isolation (a word etymologically related to ‘island’), and repair our fragmented world, whether as activist scholars or as ethical citizens.

In planning this article with Ann, I suggested that our collaboration would be a (permissible) resistance to pandemic-induced isolation. Hence, given the urgent, cooperative, and personal nature of the paper, the genre of autoethnography combined with a dialogic style held great appeal. Ultimately, our piece is not simply a reflection on touch, vision, pedagogy, and a pandemic: it is also a way for us, as two friends and scholars, to navigate the span of geographical and physical distance by exploring and imagining possibilities for vital connection when old ways of touching seem lost right now. The article is, as it were, a digital embrace through ways of seeing and being: ‘[d]istanced by our difference, but present to each other’, to use the words of feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray (2000: 11). Irigaray’s concept of the ‘caress’ as an ethical consideration for the alterity of others has stayed with me since my doctoral research and subsequent book (Dau 2012). For Irigaray, the caress fulfils an obligation in the act of loving: to be ourselves and be ‘present’ to the other. How does one enact this presence? I am enamoured of an ethic of love put forward by Black feminist bell hooks, which is that love is an act, a verb (2001: 4-6): ‘love is as love does’, she says (2001: 14). Arguing for ‘the place of love in any movement for social justice’, hooks asserts that ‘all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic’ (2001: xviii-xix). To me, the care(ss) we show for others and their welfare is an act of love.

Ann: Since the pandemic started, I have done a lot of thinking and blogging about how technology mediates tactility and visuality, and these sensory concepts have very much been brought forward. And yet these sensory considerations have always been part of the way that we navigate a digital environment. For example, the earliest emoticons represented touch, for example two separate emoticons to represent hugs, one facing right with arms outstretched in a U shape, the other facing left with arms outstretched in reciprocity. You would send one of these emoticons to your friend and your friend would send you the other, a virtual hug that worked on MSN messenger, ICQ, and many other first-generation instant messaging applications. This media(ted) touch was as close as you could get to being in contact. Now, advances in virtual reality and technology mean that you can touch from afar in different ways, such as controlling a vibrator that your partner is wearing many miles away. The way that we engage with information is changing daily, where the tactility of the printed word on a page is being replaced by that of the finger swiping across the page of an iPad or Kindle, because it is safer and more distanced from the level of handling needed to access a printed book. The visuality of the printed page has been exchanged for the glow of the screen.

One of art critic John Ruskin’s most famous quotations from The Two Paths is, ‘[f]ine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together’ (1859: 294; emphasis original). Ruskin’s belief in the need for the hand, head, and heart to work together to create art is a foundational aspect to any collaborative and cooperative article, such as this one. Thinkers like Ruskin have a great deal to teach us in a time of tactile distance, and about how we conceptualize our senses and embodiment when we assess academic, pedagogical, and artistic interconnectivity; we need to have a holistic view that takes into account our senses and emotions, just as much as our thoughts.

Seeing during COVID-19

Ann: In Canada, a lot of the discourse around COVID-19 is centered around distancing and what exactly distancing is and how it should be practiced. The City of Toronto has erected barriers around a well-frequented park (Doredea 2020) at the time the cherry blossoms would be appearing on the trees, to dissuade citizens from going there for Instagram-worthy pictures.  Barriers act as a physical deterrent to touch, to closeness, to proximity, but they do not necessarily act as a deterrent to visuality. Of course, some of the people are grouped, taking pictures from afar, demonstrating that while such barriers create distance, they do not impede visuality.

The senses help demarcate our existence during COVID-19. Days of the week don’t seem to exist in the same way; we are ‘out of touch’. We have lost a real way to demarcate the days or even the hours. Usually this demarcation is done through action, through repetition, and through visual or tactile engagement with our environment. As writer and academic Anne Carson states in her prose poem ‘Short Talk on Housing’, ‘to be a householder is a matter of rituals. Rituals function chiefly to differentiate horizontal from vertical. To begin the day in your house is to “get up.” At night you will “lie down”’ (2015: 48). None of this horizontality makes sense anymore. Everything is interrupted. Because our conceptualization of time is usually quantified, COVID-19 is forcing us into a specific type of conceptualization, into experiencing the sense that is qualified, and we are not used to it. Even our naming of this virus is quantitatively behind: it is a nineteen in the midst of twenty. This is exactly the kind of concept that philosopher Henri Bergson (2002) suggested in his work on durée, a formulation of time that suggests that we need to move from time being spatialized to it being actualized. The lack of different spaces to negotiate means any tactile or visual engagement is repeated. We are not touching anything different or seeing different objects, we are not engaging sensorily in a different way every day. It is a repetition of sensation that erases the passage of time, because everything is the same. The only markers left are the increasing numbers of those infected or dying, those who touched without protection and are now a statistic. The connections to the AIDS epidemic are too close for those in the LGBTQI2S community.

Duc: I feel as if this current climate has amplified some of our best and worst ways of seeing each other and ourselves. By ‘best’ I refer to the stories we have encountered in the media, social media, anecdotally, or in person, of strangers who have reached out to help others. We have seen with our own eyes heartening examples of compassion and empathy, qualities that are necessary for maintaining community and cohesion in times of struggle (Peters 2020: 1). And indeed, we have witnessed the New Zealand government’s exhortation to its people to ‘Be kind’ by supporting friends, family, neighbours, and the elderly (New Zealand Government 2020). In other words, to use the terms of visuality employed by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, we have seen the acting out of the ethical responsibility to one another in the face-to-face encounter (1969: 84). Responsibility, in Levinas’ sense of the term, allows us neither detachment nor indifference: the face of the other ‘confronts the subject with that immemorial, incomprehensible, and incontrovertible bond’ (Coe 2018: xi). Acts of kindness strengthen our connection with others.

In referring to seeing the ‘worst’, I do not necessarily mean anything truly awful (notwithstanding some undeniably horrible things, such as the increase in domestic violence, racism, and profiteering). I refer more to a tension with the notions of kinship and connection: a sense of social distancing slowly engendering an inward-turning gaze (like a mirror turned inward rather than outward) until, to adapt the anxious words of writer Vita Sackville-West to her then-lover Virginia Woolf, one (or, in this case, I) might ‘get more and more disagreeably solitary; […] so far gone into myself that there will no longer be seen anything of me at all’ (2002: 90). The slightly fearful thought leads Sackville-West to plead: ‘Will you, please, remember to pull away the coverings from time to time?’ (2002: 90). In contrast, the face-to-face encounter exemplified by the mutual gaze in Plato’s Phaedrus (1875), and throughout the history of western literature, allows the lover to be the mirror in whom the beloved beholds themself. The sensory stimulation associated with the sight of loved ones creates a sense of presence, thereby reinforcing the processes of care and bonding (Longhurst 2017: 65-66). In the time of COVID-19, of declining face-to-face encounters and increasing inward-facing gazes, how would the solitary among us be able to see ourselves cared for and reflected as part of a collective?

Haptic visuality

Duc: An illustration from a BBC article on COVID-19 and touch (Jeffrey 2020) features two gloved hands reaching out to each other, a la Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. This image both stands in for and draws attention to the current age of zero or limited physical contact. But why the hand? The virus has opportunistically created human hosts by means of physical contact involving, for instance, hands touching faces. While we can ensure that our own hands are washed and sanitized, we cannot be certain that the hands of others are clean. Hence, the hands in the BBC article are gloved instead of allowing for direct contact between skin. The gloved hand has therefore come to visualize at once the mistrust of hands, and the current age of social distancing. The poignancy that we might attach to such imagery derives from our memory of skin-on-skin contact. These images are examples of ‘haptic visuality’, a visuality that triggers physical memories of the other senses, especially touch. The result for me is decidedly elegiac.

In a world of post-touch (or so it seems for now), it is no wonder that many have turned to comforting tactile pleasures for the hands, such as baking, embroidering, or gardening. Having done none of these handy things, I have instead been taking longer hot showers and luxuriating in the sun—both acts allowing me to feel a warmth on my back and reminding me of Jack Twist’s wistful memory of a ‘dozy embrace’ in the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (Proulx 2006: 311). Jack’s fireside embrace with Ennis de Mar (whose name means ‘island of the sea’) is both stark and elemental, ‘satisfying some shared and sexless hunger’ (Proulx 2006: 310). With his back against Ennis, Jack feels his lover’s heartbeat and the vibrations of his humming. Foreshadowing the image of Ennis discovering his lost shirt ‘hidden […] inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one’ (Proulx 2006: 316), this memory of womblike safety and ‘contact comfort’ (Harlow 1958) haunts Jack like a lost Eden. Thus, the fireside embrace is ‘[w]hat Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand’ (Proulx 2006: 310). What he experiences with this craving is eros as lack—what Anne Carson would define as ‘desire for that which is missing’ and ‘not at hand’—the analog for which is hunger (1998: 10).

There is a ‘hunger’ that can be experienced by the skin of the hand. The headline accompanying the aforementioned BBC article asks, ‘Will we ever shake hands again?’ (Jeffrey 2020). The movement and placement of our hands is charged with meaning. To hold out an open hand is to offer welcome or care, as opposed to a withdrawal of the hand to indicate a state of withholding. This contrasting spatial orientation of hands demonstrates what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed would call a relational ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ from something or someone (2014: 8). The hand is the body part most associated with touch. Touching the hand of another person allows for physical and emotional connection or towardness, whether social or intimate. It is notable, then, that the current decline in human touch, sexual or otherwise (Jansson-Boyd 2020), has led to the increasing use and exploration of the term ‘skin hunger’ in the media. Also known as ‘touch deprivation’, skin hunger refers to the state of being touch starved (Collie 2020; Kale 2020). ‘Touch is at the core of human experiences’, argue trauma art therapists Cornelia Elbrecht and Liz Antcliff, and yet “[t]here is little awareness of the sense of touch in our visually dominated modern world’ (2015: 210). As studies have demonstrated, the lack of interpersonal touch, especially in infancy, is likely to have adverse consequences for our wellbeing far beyond childhood (Harlow 1958; Takeuchi et al. 2010). Unremarked upon in the language of touch deprivation, however, is the fact that in the English language, phrases such as ‘to need more hands’ or ‘all hands on deck’ indicate that this body part can be a synecdoche for an entire person. To be deprived of the hand is to be deprived of the one to whom it is attached. No wonder that in this age of skin hunger, technology has been touted as furnishing us with a lover’s touch and the feel of their heartbeat (Christian 2020), though with a price tag.

In newer technologies, the skin of a screen seems to promise haptic visuality. But does this haptic visuality disappoint more than it satisfies? A few years ago, my then-toddler niece received a discomfiting lesson on the simultaneity of visual presence and somatic absence. I was chatting via Skype to her parents as they and she were at the dining table. My niece and I had met in person before, so she already had a spatial and tactile awareness of my physical presence. At one point, she got down from her high chair and came around to give me a hug. She walked to the screen, walked behind it to find me, realized I wasn’t there, and started to cry. She was upset and confused by the sight before her eyes, because she could not touch what she could see. The encounter was that of the ‘uncanny’, which for Freud is an experience of being robbed of one’s eyes (Royle 2003: 40), but to my niece it was a robbing of the haptic experience of my materiality. If the technology had been more advanced, would my niece have been able to reach out and touch my face through the interface of the screen, and would I have been able to feel her in response? Yet until such technology is widely available, most people would probably prefer to have the visuality of someone rather than their complete absence or even simply their voice or a text: this is still the most complete sensate connection that many of us have at present.

Ann: Similar to Duc’s story about her niece, I have had students that I have taught online who have said that I ‘seemed like a nice professor’, suggesting that the visuality of the screen is not sufficient as an indication of my efficacy in the professorial role, that there needed to be some sort of tactile or haptic or visual confirmation in the real and not virtual world. This was of course pre-COVID-19, and I often think about these students, and whether they are still having difficulty judging the tone or the pulse of an online meeting when physical cues are lacking.

From a theoretical standpoint, it is often difficult to distinguish between the senses, especially in relation to touch, because touch is the one sense that can be used in some ways to frame and describe the use of the other senses. Philosopher Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition speaks to a conceptual physical eye blending sight with the proximity of touch. It is by conceptualizing what sight is as a sense with the immaterial internality of thought that we can understand what we mean by vision. Oliver states, ‘the physical eye is merely the medium for an immaterial mind’s eye through which vision (perception) becomes Vision (thought)’ (2001: 171). Thus, for Oliver, vision is not merely a sensory extension but rather an overlaying of the physical on top of the unseeable of thought. The visual is also within the realm of the ethical for Oliver, and this is where the concept of witnessing comes into play. Oliver proposes that vision is distancing, in that there is necessarily a gap between subject and object, but at the same time it is through the gaze that there is a connection, a physical linking through the gaze itself (2001: 12). Witnessing, and the visuality of witnessing, echoes a haunting. The visions of what one has seen lurk in our minds long after the event has passed, just as tactility haunts: the residue of someone’s touch, a memory on the skin from pre-COVID-19 times. We remember our lovers, as Duc has demonstrated above with Jack and Ennis.

Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous quotation from The Visible and the Invisible, ‘between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things’ (1965: 123), shows us how touch has a similar penetrability and lingering ability seen in vision. We are in a time when embodied limits are being redefined and policed in so many ways. Even the gentlest touch has the ability to be a contaminating one. There is an encroachment of space in the liminality of skin, and this is why we have now moved to a seemingly safer sense, namely vision. However, this vision has the ability to be just as traumatic, Oliver suggests: vision is just as overlapping and encroaching. We are becoming tired of our vision, tired of seeing, and tired of witnessing (but only those with privilege have the opportunity not to witness the violence of the world). Vision can touch us (emotionally, if not literally) where it hurts the most. We see the horrors of the world as we scroll through social media feeds, an action where visuality and tactility combine, finger on phone screen, eyes witnessing testimony.

This isn’t just an untethered sensory, it is a real connection of theory and practice in a time of distance, seeing in a time where touch is limited. Seeing touch still happening (often a violent touch in the case of George Floyd) when touch should in theory be off limits—but for some it never is. It is important to point out that the etymology of ‘theory’ comes from the visual. Theory, from the Greek theoria, means ‘a looking at’ or ‘a sight’, or even ‘a spectacle’, which suggests that seeing is at the heart and core of theory. So where is the visual of theory in a time where that which offends cannot be seen, or in fact unseen? The invisible virus is enacting pain and death upon so many, and it is not visible to the naked eye. In theory, if we do not touch, or if we do touch and then wash our hands for some magical amount of time, 20 seconds or 30 seconds, then that which is invisible will disappear. Noli me tangere, because I am now clean, and do not want to be dirtied, even if that dirt is invisible. COVID-19 writes on our bodies in invisible ink, playing with our epistemological frame. How do we know we are sick if we can’t see it? That trauma of the unknowable is present in so many ways in our new COVID-19 lives.

Trauma and care in the university

Ann: A great Twitter thread by educator Karen Costa (2020) speaks to the trauma of having cameras on all the time in a video call. In the thread, Costa states that ‘difficulty with looking at oneself in a mirror is a very common symptom of trauma’ and that having the camera on during a video call very much mimics this mirroring effect. There is a trauma to visuality. This is why it is so important to keep trauma-informed practices (Diede 2020) in mind as we are all working through what it means to be quarantined. We are all working through trauma in relation to COVID-19, whether we realize it or not, and thus we need to have that sens(itivity) to teaching.

This trauma-informed practice is part of a larger framework of feminist ethics of care. Taken from the work of ethicists Nel Noddings (1984) and Jane Tronto (1993), there are many aspects of care ethics that interweave in both acknowledging the need for trauma-informed practices, and in acknowledging our responsibility both for our own care and that of others in COVID-19 lives. Maurice Hamington’s work on care ethics, which is informed by Jane Addams’ work on embodied care, is something I return to time and again as I try to process responsibilities. Hamington has outlined three types of ethical interactions: caring, noncaring, and acaring. For Hamington, ‘noncaring habits are those that harm another embodied being; examples include spousal abuse, child molestations, and acting out road rage. Caring habits are those that exhibit a regard for the growth, flourishing, and well-being of another’ (2004: 57). Acaring habits are the morally neutral ways that we navigate our spaces, and are increasingly being challenged by quarantine regulations where nothing is morally neutral any longer. In our new COVID-19 lives, noncaring habits appear more readily in the disregard of your own or another’s wellbeing. The ethics of care, commonly used in discussions of nursing or social work supports, is often problematically gendered, and very much related to the sensory. This gendered work has been highlighted more and more in COVID-19 times, especially around care (Nesbitt-Ahmed & Subrahmanian 2020) and even how this adversely affects academic productivity for women (Flaherty 2020). Touching a patient to help support or cure. An empathetic look to support in trying times. All of these sensory interactions have been interrupted by the trauma of COVID-19. A continual flow of information to be processed, the lack of regard for the need for space to reflect, arguments about the need for cameras to be on or off in online meetings or classes—all of this is framed squarely in the need for a feminist ethics of care to be more present in our lives, more than ever before.

I have been working through a great deal of information overload, processing through everything that comes my way daily, both in terms of the media but also in terms of work-related information. Much of this information has become visual stimulation overload, which is now presenting itself as a trauma. From a pedagogical perspective, failure to effectively process information (or having strong information literacy), along with a lack of experience with different modes of interaction and delivery, means an incapability to use the sensory to learn, and this is exactly where we are today. It is also very difficult to function in a new paradigm which is both familiar and foreign. If you are used to teaching in a face-to-face environment, then there are many opportunities for overload and for gaps online. As Ruskin mentions in The Ethics of the Dust, ‘[i]f you can read a book rightly, you will want others to hear it; if you can enjoy a picture rightly, you will want others to see it[….]: you will never be able to see the fine instruments you are master of, abused’ (1866: 218). And there is much abuse of the self as instructor, as students, and of the pedagogy itself in this new remote model.

There is so much sensory in the care that is needed for both the students and the instructors in COVID-19 pedagogy, and sadly that care is often forgotten. How students are approaching this new educational paradigm has been well discussed, and that conversation needs to continue. When I see the suggestions from instructors in terms of what they are doing with their pandemic pedagogy, I wonder if thought has been given to the sensory, and the important epistemological and phenomenological role the sensory has in teaching and learning. Though we are not yet at the age of pedagogical cyborgs, there are important sensory considerations to how instructors are expected to teach, and how students are expected to learn.

The discourse in pandemic pedagogy is centred around the importance of maintaining high-touch communication practices and high-touch learning as a stand-in for engaged pedagogy. Hence, engagement is to mean touch, a recreation of the closeness of the classroom, and what we have is now a closeness attempted through vision. This pandemic pedagogy has much to learn from awareness of sensory paradigms. As Duc has demonstrated in her many examples, there is a touch that haunts, a touch that directs towards a socio-cultural and embodied awareness. This same sensory awareness and analysis is needed in approaches to pedagogy in relation to vision. The sensory enacts a dynamism that educators seem to be looking for as a lost aspect to their pedagogy, now that they are faced with a new mode of delivery and engagement.

I am very wary of a tendency I am seeing, which is to replace with sight the aspects that are normally completed through touch. Lectures are now being recorded or streamed live through video conferencing systems in a way to maintain the visuality of the lecture model, but this comes with its own set of accessibility considerations. In a lecture hall, a deaf or hard of hearing student may have a signer in the class. How is this achieved online? In a lecture hall, a blind student may have a note taker with them, someone well-versed and trained in describing what is being shown in class. There are of course ways to do this, but the important message here is that the ways to enact pedagogical strategies center around visuality. What happens when access to visuality just becomes too much for the participant for reasons of trauma, disability, or technology? What we need is a sensory agnostic pedagogy, as well as delivery agnostic design. This means that course design and foundational concepts should ideally be able to be delivered in a face-to-face model, in a hybrid or flipped model, or remotely online.

Duc: I am not teaching at present, apart from recently marking final assignments on behalf of a course convenor who was away meditating. Ann’s comment about trauma-informed practice piqued my attention. I can see how it is utterly vital to keep trauma in mind when it comes to the work of ethical care in teaching. But I also wonder, how might it be applied to educators and their own self-care. For educators in the age of COVID-19, does self-care or reparational touch—or perhaps care through non-touch—require a distancing from the screen simply because it is too near? I deliberately employ the word ‘self-care’ because of its political use following the rise of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. In the celebrated words of Black feminist writer, Audre Lorde, ‘[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’ (1988: 131). This form of care is not the neoliberal appropriation it has sometimes come to be. Nestled within an ethic of love, this resistant ethic of care is especially important in light of the ongoing biases against, and the traumas experienced by, precarious workers and minority populations such as people of color in the academy (Eagan & Garvey 2015). These adverse experiences are in turn compounded by austerity measures in the sector. Over the past few decades, waves of conservative federal governments in Australia have been waging an ideological war against the higher education sector. Funding cuts have meant that I have seen tutorial class numbers basically double over the past fifteen years or so, making personalized learning incredibly difficult. COVID-19 has given the government a prime opportunity to further cripple the sector, not necessarily by acting (though they have indeed acted to ensure public universities are unable to participate in the government’s key COVID-19 stimulus package, JobKeeper), but rather, by failing to provide a dedicated stimulus package that the sector could find useful during its greatest financial crisis (Group of Eight 2020). Hence, in addition to the stresses of having to switch almost overnight to online teaching as a social distancing measure, university workers have had to contend with the sector’s ongoing diminution, which will continue to have a negative impact on teaching, research, and student services alike.

While acknowledging that self-care is crucial in Black and First Nations communities, I also believe that in these times, higher education workers would benefit from practicing a form of self-care aligned with ‘radical care’, a term that the editors of a recent special edition of Social Text have defined as ‘a set of vital but underappreciated strategies for enduring precarious worlds’ (Hobart & Kneese 2020: 2). Radical care is performed within a framework of collective care, whereby we recognize that subjects ‘are inherently networked and interdependent’ (Hobart & Kneese 2020: 5). For me, the key is to make radical care more visible and viable in higher education, so that its workers might survive an increasingly precarious world. It is a matter of social justice. I like to think of radical care as a much-needed queering of the neoliberal university, in the same way that Ahmed speaks of desire lines—the unofficial traces on the ground that show where people have strayed from the paths they are meant to follow—as the queering of a landscape. Ahmed says, ‘[i]t is certainly desire that helps generate a queer landscape, shaped by the paths that we follow in deviating from the straight line’ (2006: 570). Imprinting a path of radical care would create a legacy for others to ‘move over, across, and through’ (Edelman 2020: 111). Moreover, to use a literary analogy from Lorde’s ‘biomythography’, Zami, radical care might leave a transformative ‘print’ on one’s life or that of another, like ‘the resonance and power of an emotional tattoo’ (1982: 253). In the text, Lorde’s lovers have marked her body with the queer lines of their desire: ‘every woman I have ever loved has left her print on me’, she says (1982: 255). In thinking of radical care through a queer lens, we can recognize how the deviating lines of collective care(ss) and connection configure the vital network of our interdependencies.

Future considerations

Around 150 years ago, the poet Alfred Tennyson wrote about being haunted by, and reunited with, the lost touch of his dead friend Arthur Hallam. In a scene from his homoromantic elegy In Memoriam (1987), the poet’s act of reading Hallam’s letters turns into an extraordinary metaphysical encounter described through the language of the haptic. ‘The silent-speaking words’ of the handwritten letters conjure up much more than their dictionary meanings, as we see that, ‘word by word, and line by line, / The dead man touch’d me from the past (Tennyson 1987: section 95). The visuality of reading, along with the tactility of handling, creates a sensation of the authorial hand that in life had ‘so often [been] clasped in mine’ (Tennyson 1987: section 10). Tennyson’s concerns are also our concerns, both now and as we move into the COVID-19 future. How do we reunite with a loss of touch through an experience of visuality? And how do we reconcile the visual experience with the memory of touch? As we have demonstrated, literature and theory have much to teach us about how we relate to touch and the visual. In fact, it is when we look at each sense in isolation that we lose the ability to see the bigger picture, to engage with the fear of proximity, and the haunting of both lost love and invisible contaminants. We struggle to find meanings, new theories, and new paradigms, and, sadly, these paradigms are often taken in isolation. One only has to look at the confusion around Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) definition of intersectionality to see that humans have a great deal of difficulty conceptualizing with overlapping systems. What we have argued for in this article is the absolute need to look at these senses holistically. If we fail to do so then we will simply perpetuate our isolation from others, and our isolation from ourselves, and in doing so lose a real opportunity to connect in a changed world.


We would like to thank Jessica White for her comments on this article.



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