The loss of “proximity” senses

Ruth Finnegan in her Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection (2002) explains that human face-to-face communication is characterized by multimodality, that is, by the fact that we always communicate using a variety of interdependent channels at the same time. The tone of voice, the effectiveness of the gaze, facial expressions, body posture, hand and arm gestures, the regulated use of touch, the evocative sense of smell, the symbolic power of clothing – all of these are elements of human interconnectedness.

Communicating is thus a highly polysemic process that is difficult to define and describe as it involves an extraordinary quantity of interdependent elements, in which the participants form an active and creative relationship.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown have caused an unexpected restriction of the multiple modalities of human interconnection, reducing both our extraordinary and our daily social relationship to what can be communicated to the two dimensions of a screen.

As a consequence, the sense of sight is enhanced compared with others, leading to a persistent visual overexposure that tires and depresses us, causing, in the long run, the sensation of a loss of energy. As a secondary schoolteacher confided to me during an in-depth interview on remote teaching:

… the particular thing that we have all noticed: you put energy in there but it does not return, whereas in a direct relationship energies return; whenever you enter a classroom you feel that the energies do arrive, what you give comes back to you somehow, you feel tired but emotionally fortified; in there it is pure exhaustion, total alienation.

Furthermore, in digital communication, sight and hearing no longer work in synergy but produce a kind of continuous cognitive dissonance since, online, there is always a time lapse, more or less accentuated, between what I see (the speaker’s face) and what I listen to (the words that come to me a little later, sometimes slowed down, sometimes accelerated); the sense of touch, then, locked up in our homes, is reduced to typing on a keyboard, clicking, scrolling or even to frantic washing and disinfecting for fear of infection.

There is an even more direct relationship between Covid-19 and our senses: the symptomatology of the disease manifests itself in several cases with ageusia, the loss of taste, and anosmia, the loss of smell.

Much has been said about the obligation, imposed by the need to contain the spread of the disease, to maintain a physical distance and not to touch each other, and much has also been said about the social suffering caused by these prohibitions. However, less attention has been paid to the loss of smell and taste. Yet smell and taste are the most intimate senses, anthropologically defined as “proximity senses”. We do not have a standardized system of coding and verbalization for them as is the case for the “remote senses” – sight and hearing –- though they operate, more widely than the other senses, at the emotional and affective levels of experience.

A person’s smell is part of their uniqueness – it suggests mutual intimacy and can form a special, close bond with another person; the smells of the places we frequent represent a particularly emotive basis for the sense of belonging to a community, for social inclusion and exclusion (commonly, the foreigner “stinks”). Moreover, the sense of smell comes into play  during ceremonial and therapeutic moments, those most linked to the symbolic and even ritual dimensions of culture. It is able to stimulate the deeply moving memory of places, people, situations.

Taste is the sense that most subtly and unconsciously binds us to our tradition and cultural memory. As Le Breton writes in Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses, our favourite flavours constitute a secret and timeless bond that reminds us of the table of our childhood and, even further, to our feeding mother. Taste metaphorically defines pleasure – expressions such as “to savour life” or “to taste the beauty of a landscape” are frequently used – and besides, a beloved food or drink produces instant, intense, satisfying well-being.

Symbolically, the pandemic, just as it takes our breath away, takes away not only the most emotional and intimate parts of our senses, but also the most mysterious side of human relationality. As it temporarily makes these senses dormant in the infected, so it hides them from social life, since taste and smell are precisely the senses that cannot be experienced and communicated through the digital channel, which now characterizes most of our daily communications. If we can share our ideas through remote meetings, view a photo or listen to good music on our social networks, we cannot share aromas, perfumes, fragrances, flavours on a digital platform.

Therefore, the symptomatology of Covid-19 involves the loss of the sense of proximity and leaves some open questions: does it foreshadow the future of a humanity without smell or taste, senses to be considered as superfluous for digital humans? Or does it urge us to pay attention to that irreducible background of physicality, which we have rediscovered as an important component of human interconnection? Or, finally, does it remind us that communication, and therefore sociality, implies not only a cognitive level but also affective and emotional processes that we are unwilling to give up?


Originally published in Italian as La perdita dei “sensi di prossimità”

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