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Disembodied Communication

We live in a social world in which we are mimetically engulfed, constantly sharing and imitating the behavior and facial expressions of those around us. From the nonverbal synchronies we share with our caregivers, through the behavioral contagion of adolescence, to the empathy of shared emotion as adults, we feel comfortable and connected, or rejected and alien. The emotional pain of social rejection depends upon the same neurophysiology as physical pain, and our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, bodily isolating technological mediation reduces the risk of rejection by attenuating our mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies. Electronic communication, in hiding our vulnerability behind screens of defensiveness, distance, and projection, may undercut the development of the very emotional and cognitive capacities necessary for social intercourse. By channeling such intercourse to distance senses, away from smell, taste, touch, physical presence, facial expression, and the coordination of bodily interaction, we interact as if we were disembodied. While avoiding feelings of vulnerability and mortality, we risk further disconnection, alienation, and isolation. While such technologies may also enable us to expand our interiors in more inclusive ways, those very interiors can be expressed, via real bodies, in real places, with excruciatingly finite lives.

There is so much in our culture, at this point in history, that encourages, even teaches us to act with lessened consideration and attention to our bodies, as if our bodies were these weird, disgusting excrescences clinging to the happy balloons we’d otherwise be, soaring above these lumps of flesh. We can spend hours as couch potatoes, watching Olympic events which test and celebrate some of the pinnacles of what human bodies are capable. We “surf the web” sitting on our duffs, transfixed by a liquid crystal display, moving little but the carpal tunneled musculature of our hands and fingertips, now the primary method of communicating with our peers, and even our lovers, or lovers-to-be. But our bodies are the very medium, the very physical substrate without which we could do nothing at all. Finally, it is a genuine smiling face, the actual sound of laughter, or even the mere bodily presence of another that can allay the aching hearts, the faces wet with tears, of those who are becoming ever wary of touch.

We have barely begun to comprehend the cultural tectonic shift of the changes rendered by the Internet and electronic “social media,” and in turn by our increasingly normative inattention not only to our own bodies, but to the actual physical presences of nearby embodied others. We hunch our heads and shoulders over the hand-held screens with which we largely engage equally embodied others whose physical presence is, well, absent. How we look, how we feel, sound, smell, or taste are inaccessible to direct experience. Nevertheless both public behavior, and selected slices of the private behavior we so expressively share on media that can theoretically be shared infinitely and stored forever, can be made far more widely available than we might ever have imagined. Though there is a huge cost to privacy, and hence to the intimacy it makes possible, social media leaves little room for anything to be hidden. Since #MeToo went viral, the magnification level of scrutiny has increased. There are clear positive benefits in the uncovering of genuine harassment and abuse, but it is a double-edged sword, wherein anything that could be remotely construed as inappropriate is not only subject to suspicion, but often to the indignance of a shaming by accusation which we haven’t seen since the Red Scare. Some level of self-scrutiny is valuable, but as Stephanie Zacharek pointed out in a recent article about Hollywood (Time 3.12.2018), “while, say, having more women and people of color as filmmakers and screenwriters means that a wider range of stories will be told, the idea that everything needs to be run through a filter to make sure it is completely fair and inoffensive to everyone isn’t the best way to make art.” Actually, in its extreme versions, it can do real damage to spontaneity and the possibility of genuinely honest conversation.

The excesses of “political correctness” expectations on college campuses are a case in point. A colleague of mine told me that this has been reaching epidemic proportions in student services for a decade. She was regularly being contacted by headhunters for jobs at other colleges, but she told me that if she left our college, it would be to leave higher education. Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” may joke about it, but comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock just choose not to take college gigs anymore. Even for faculty with academic freedom, it can become tiresome. Having to justify discipline-relevant classroom improvisations (intended to push students beyond their comfort levels) because they trod on some students’ sensitivities hardly benefits creative teaching. Never mind how little it gives little incentive for the spontaneity and vividness that can make a class interesting and even fun for most students.

Now, I am well aware of the irony, even apparent contradiction that these issues present coming from a man of words, someone who made his living speaking and writing, and who currently finds blogging on the internet to be a valuable form of expression. I am trying to share, outside the lecture hall, a lifetime of study, research, and thinking about human psychology and cognitive science. Absent now are the cadences and facial accompaniments, the choreography of movement, and the dance of interaction with students: bright, interested, and prepared, present in all their youthful embodiment. God that was fun. But part of the fun was also the non-literal discourse, the counterfactual entertainments, the use of sarcasm, humor, or even overblown dramatism. And much of this has, in recent years, been sadly lost (or needs to be explicitly “framed”) for students who spend too much time texting, and not enough time with real, embodied peers with whom they could also laugh, dance, become actual rather than “facebook” friends, form more emotional intimacies, or even make love (vs “hook up”).

Yes, the value of language, whether spoken or written, or even in symbolic thought, is a vast leap over unmediated, direct experience. Contact senses such as touch, smell, and taste are most obviously mediated by language, but language also brings life to what cannot be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. The use of language means that we can refer to, and predicate upon, not only the interior cognitive and emotional states of ourselves and our immediate interlocutors, but to events and people distant in space and time, from otherwise unseen microscopic details to galax