Twisting the senses – pandemic and digital remediation

Image: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye


Commentary on the book by João Pedro Cachopo

The twist of the senses. Pandemic and digital remediation, by Portuguese musicologist and philosopher João Pedro Cachopo, is published at a time when reflection on the pandemic has become a separate genre. In the first months of 2020, global academics, in general philosophers linked to European and American universities, had a strong presence on news sites and social networks, being read and shared at a speed that highlighted the need to understand the new phenomenon, which was going to far beyond a health catastrophe, permeating all dimensions of our life, including work, education, affective relationships, art and consumption. With diverse theoretical orientations, Agamben and Zizek, Judith Butler and Rancière, Naomi Klein and Byung-Chul Han, David Harvey and Bruno Latour, among many others, took the risk of interpreting the pandemic, reaching very different conclusions from each other, of the consolidation from a global surveillance regime to the imminent collapse of capitalism.

Published in Portugal still in 2020, after this first wave of interventions, Cachopo's book has above all the merit of offering a balance of the accumulated debate, not limiting itself to reviewing positions, but seeking above all to examine them in the light of a new perspective opened up by the pandemic, namely, how social distancing has transformed our ways of life by intensifying human interactions through technology. If such a balance allows Cachopo to advance in the development of his book's hypothesis, it inevitably also shows that the immediate response of several intellectuals to the pandemic may have been too quick, often incorporating a new phenomenon into a previously outlined diagnosis of the time, thus losing the occasion to think what is new in the situation.

The most glaring case is undoubtedly the “invention” of the pandemic pointed out by Agamben, who promptly saw in it only confirmation of the ongoing trend of government authorities extending their network of control over individuals in order to maintain the current state of exception. . The hypothesis, which bypassed the examination of the seriousness of health, in no way accounted for the measures taken by European liberal democracies to contain the pandemic. We can add that his hasty statements are even more out of place when confronted with the absence of a state structure and international collaboration in African countries, as we have just observed, once again, by the sequencing of yet another variant in South Africa.

In our case, we could question what he would have to say about the state denialism practiced by the Brazilian government, which not only left the population to their own devices, transferring their responsibility to governors and mayors to act without coordination according to the convenience and interest of the moment, but also turned down offers to purchase vaccines? Would it simply be a bet on chaos to impose exceptional measures? If a significant part of the European and American population blocks the advancement of vaccination based on suspicions about the state, could we simply identify resistance to a power that restricts freedoms?

The synthesis of the initial debate about the pandemic allows us to notice that some diagnoses were not only more coherent with their theoretical assumptions than with the situation to be interpreted, but also showed little attention to the way in which a global phenomenon such as the pandemic took on specific configurations. very different places from each other in the many regions of the planet. Assuming a certain distance from the initial interventions, Cachopo opens space to examine less obvious consequences of the event, with the potential to extend beyond it into significant changes in our ways of living and interacting with other people.

Its central hypothesis tells us that the “event” would not be the pandemic as such, but the “torsion of the senses” provoked by the exacerbated use of the media, which provoked social distancing measures taken to contain the pandemic in its initial stage. In other words, a reordering of what we call near and far by a way of life mediated by technology. Although the digital revolution was already present, Cachopo maintains that the pandemic consummated the process in such a way that it posed to us in an unprecedented way the question of how to deal with this new degree of technological mediation in all areas of life: in personal relationships, at work , in study, in artistic production, in the very notion of community, including in its global sense.

The publication of the book in Brazil in the second half of 2021, when the advance in vaccination fuels the expectation of a full return to face-to-face activities, creates a very favorable occasion to test the book's hypotheses. Whether “digital remediation” is here to stay or whether it will tend to lose intensity as soon as we return to the usual spaces of coexistence at work, teaching and free time, is something that we will soon have the opportunity to find out. The interest of the book, however, does not end with the questioning of post-pandemic life. His main interest lies in showing how the exacerbation of the use of technology to communicate since the beginning of 2020 constitutes a privileged prism to evaluate and rethink the relationships we had before the circulation of the virus.

By re-dimensioning the event, Cachopo broadens the scope of his book and manages to link the debate about the pandemic to discussions about technology that, ultimately, go back to decades-old reflections on mass culture. It is no coincidence that the famous polarity proposed by Umberto Eco – apocalyptic and integrated – now serves not only to characterize various positions in the face of the digital revolution – from rejection to naive adherence –, but also the consequences for the “twisting of the senses” led to cable by the pandemic. The key term there is, in fact, “digital remediation” that appears in the subtitle of the book and facilitates the replacement of Eco's “integrated” by “remedied”.

The meaning here is not, however, to find a palliative or a remedy for interaction through technology in conditions of social distancing, but to explore the potential of the confluence of different means or media – “sound, image and text” – in a single medium: “the concept of 'remediation' provides us with an emblem of the impact of the digital revolution on the human experience, and it is in this sense that I almost always use it in this book” (p. 23). If technological means directly affect our perception, as Walter Benjamin had already stated, whose reflection on technical reproducibility is constantly resumed by Cachopo, the potentialization of the digital revolution during the pandemic also poses a task to the imagination, taken here in its most practical sense of dealing with the new coordinates of proximity and distance in the five senses highlighted by Cachopo in the book: alterity in love; the unknown in the study; the enigmatic in art; the common good in the community; and the remote in the journey. The extreme situation of the pandemic thus serves both to question what we understand by each of these meanings and to interrogate their transformation through technological mediation.

The influence of social distancing measures on love life was one of the most frequent topics in reports on behavior in the pandemic. While the sociability environments that favor new encounters and the emergence of new relationships were banned, many couples had to deal with the problem of distance, either because of its intensification, when they lived in separate houses or distant cities, or because of its drastic shortening, when they start not only to live together daily without the breaks of life away from home – mainly to work –, but also to compete for suitable places to work in apartments that were never thought of as home offices.

If the pandemic has married countless boyfriends, it must also have been responsible for many separations due to forced coexistence. Cachopo takes up this topic again to think of love as “an art of good distance, whose rules are not defined a priori beforehand” (p. 94) and to question an assumption that has not been sufficiently thematized of what it means to live together: “by showing that love is an art of approximation and distancing, and by challenging lovers to reinvent themselves, the pandemic opens – or can, at least, open – a discussion about conjugality and one of its least discussed assumptions: cohabitation” ( p. 95).

The severe restrictions on travel in the wake of the sudden closure of numerous borders, generating a profusion of cases of people trying to return home amidst canceled flights, serve as an opportunity for Cachopo to draw attention to the meaning of the travel experience. His thesis is that travel and the traveler, and not just residents of tourist sites, already suffered from the restrictive conditions posed by the organization of mass tourism and its numerous intermediaries (agencies, hotels, tours, pre-defined itineraries). , preventing a type of knowledge defined as “multisensory experience”. If the spread of travel across the Google Street View during the pandemic, which have even served as the basis for the work of many photographers in recent times, shows how much physical displacement is an irreplaceable, or rather, “irremediable” experience, it also invites you to imagine better ways to travel than those facilitated by tourism global.

Something similar is said of the study. If the university is a place of learning and enlightenment, it has also proved to be a place of critical “professionalization of thinking”, either by the invasion of the market in the organization of courses and careers, or by the subjection of research to productivity metrics in the evaluation of teaching career. Remote activities, with their convenience and low cost, allowing the university to function at a distance even in the most restrictive moments of the pandemic, could dangerously become one more step towards capitalizing on university life. Simultaneously, the deprivation of conviviality and sharing of the academic space demands a reflection on what would be the most important – and irreplaceable – in the university experience: an institution for the production and transmission of knowledge that is also a model of a way of life in common.

With its power of imagination, art would be one of the best seismographs of what digital remediation in ways of living together after the pandemic could become, so much so that it receives the most extensive treatment among the meanings considered by Cachopo. At first, the performing arts – theater, dance, music, in addition to cinema itself – were the most affected by the impediment of collective work and the banning of live performance venues, which led many shows to explore the alternative of presentation. online. Cachopo does not dwell on the theater of the pandemic, presented to the camera, but highlights how great opera houses, the Metropolitan from New York, for example, knew how to deal with distance by already exploring instruments of distance transmission, exporting shows to be shown in movie theaters around the world.

If this brings the show closer to a distant audience, it does not, however, guarantee the innovation or artistic quality of the productions, which can be restricted to the conventional, when not the mere dissemination of artistic brands. Something very different happens with the example favored by Cachopo and, it is worth saying, the highlight of the book, for combining artistic and technological innovation, in the spirit of Walter Benjamin's defense of the development of the means of production. Its about The Encounter, a theatrical and multimedia show directed by Simon McBurne in London, in 2015, based on a trip through the Amazon made by the photojournalist of National Geographic Loren McIntyre, who discovered and photographed the source of the Amazon River in the Andes Mountains, in Peru, in 1971. The conjunction of live voices with other pre-recorded ones served to play fictional and real elements, of facts staged with conditions of staging, of actors and characters, integrating its genesis to the show, with the director retracing the steps of his character. According to Cachopo, the merit of the show lay in proposing, through technological remediation, a questioning about what we are looking for in these displacements in space and time.

None of the meanings analyzed by Cachopo exposes the horizon of the book as clearly as art does, namely, a notion of community envisaged in a global sense and associated with the problem of planetary scale par excellence, namely, the ecological question. On the one hand, based on reflections by Elias Canetti, he tries to point out that the notion of community does not necessarily presuppose hierarchy and leadership, as could be seen in the configurations of the political spectrum on the right; on the other hand, based on Benedict Anderson's studies on nationalism, he tries to show that every community is necessarily an imagined community. Hence he concludes that there could be no imagined community which could not be remedied.

It is here that consideration opens for a “we” that would reach global scale through technological “remediation”. The book is thus linked to the defense of global agendas by collectives that recognize “remediation”, on the internet, as an essential tool for putting forward their claims, thinking of themselves as a community and guiding the defense of common ways of life. The challenge recalled by Cachopo regarding opera would also apply to this case: the objective is to imagine new ways of experiencing, interpreting and creating.

This is the horizon of the proposed reflection, which seeks to guard against the naivety of many global movements, incapable of going beyond the restricted borders of social networks, at the same time that it considers it necessary to place resources at their service that do not deserve to be merely discarded as instruments of control and surveillance. Faced with the optimism of some intellectuals regarding a possible collapse of capitalism triggered by the pandemic, Cachopo's book is more cautious. Instead of transferring the energies of dissolution of a global system to the pandemic or the digital revolution, he seeks to think of a “we” that constitutes itself as the subject of events by taking upon itself the task of dealing with the potential of each medium, of each situation.

* Luciano Gatti He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Constellations: criticism and truth in Benjamin and Adorno (Loyola).



Joao Pedro Cachopo. The twist of the senses. Pandemic and digital remediation. São Paulo, Elephant, 2021, 100 pages.


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