Intentional Civics Revisited

Apr 14, 2020

For his thesis production, a third-year Columbia director chose to stage T. S. Eliot’s 1935 verse drama Murder in the Cathedral in St. John’s Cathedral on the upper west side of Manhattan. For the production, he was granted access to several of the small chapels that surround the nave and apse. I have never cared for Eliot’s heady and rather convoluted play and this production struggled to capture the attention and imagination of the audience. The vastness, verticality and baroque nature of the space did not help the actors who tried valiantly and without much success to embody the characters and tell the story. But one scene came unexpectedly into focus when one of the actors had to speak to another through the metal bars that fenced off a chapel. Suddenly the acting came alive, his voice came into focus, the presence of the actor expanded, and the scene lit up. I believe that the success of the scene had to do with the effort required for one actor to connect with the other. The obstacle of the metal bars in between them heightened their rapport and successfully dilated the moment.   

Right now, and across the planet, many of us are enacting what is being called “social distancing.” But perhaps social distance is a misnomer. We are indeed maintaining physical distance, but I have noticed a concurrent escalation of social communion as well as spatial and temporal awareness.  My wife Rena and I are at home in our garden flat in London with our puppy Mabel. We do not know how long we will be confined to this space, but it will definitely be for quite some time. The space between us matters now more than ever. We are less casual about the quality of the space between us because we know, without even discussing it, that we must get along, we must cultivate respect and take care for the love. One senses more than ever that marriage is a verb. Perhaps love is respect. 

On the streets of London, I have noticed a rapidly escalating awareness of spacing and timing. Normally our attention to time and space is unconscious. We weave around one another, for the most part avoiding collision, not even aware of the dance that we are enacting. With social distancing, I notice that people are becoming hyper aware other people and the distance around and between them.  Spatial relationship is critical and the space between people is charged with a wakeful tension.

A couple of days ago I was steering Mabel for a walk towards a nearby neighborhood cemetery that is run by the Royal Parks Department and three drunk guys, weaving closely together down the sidewalk, careened past, almost bumping into me. I suddenly remembered a scene in Werner Herzog’s haunting 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampire wherein dying villagers, infected with the plague, come out into the town square, dressed in their finest clothes, to enact a macabre dance with one another amidst coffins, bits of furniture and untethered animals.  I realized that we have a choice when it comes to how we act and interact in this current alarming crisis.

Because every other person on the street or in a grocery store may be contagious, the space between us can be considered dangerous and charged with tension and threat.  But in these moments of social and spatial exchange, we can consciously choose how to respond and how to treat the space between us.  We can either react to others with fear and selfishness or we can project and communicate respect, friendliness and good humor. We are now responsible for the whole space and for those within it. Being together in this way requires us to occupy the present moment with one another in a new and heightened way. 

Our interactions with one another currently are less casual, have higher stakes and greater meaning. Not only do we have to be apprehensive of what our hands touch, but the space between us matters and timing matters in a newly intensified way. It may be useful to reexamine the notion of courtesy, which arose in the Middle Ages from the concept of chivalry and the chivalric code. Courtesy is not politeness, rather it teaches deference for the other person who may very well be dangerous and to show respect and awareness of that danger. Courtesy requires both restraint and responsibility. 

The anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book The Hidden Dimension coined the word “proxemics,” to describe how space is used in human interactions. He classifies social distance in four categories:  1. Intimate distance (direct contact) 2. Personal distance (1-4 feet) 3. Social distance (4-12 feet) and 4. Public distance (12-25 feet).

Personal space is generally an invisible boundary, a region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs.  As individuals, we are generally territorial and feel in control only in relation to the quality of our spatial environment. Most people value their personal space and feel discomfort, anger or anxiety when that space is encroached. In our era of physical distancing perhaps our sense of proxemics is altering radically. Roger Cohen, columnist for the New York Times recently described the way that people veer away from one another on the streets of New York as the “Coronavirus swerve.”

In March of 2018 I released a blog entitled “Intentional Civics.”  I had been introduced to the expression by Elliot Waples, an undergraduate at the New School who described intentional civics, a term he coined himself, as an attention to the space between people rather than attention to what happens within specific individuals.  He said, “There is no moment where bodies can exist without negative space and therefore there is no moment where civics is not practiced.” According to Waples, the way that space is attended to and activated, how bodies and groups react to one another, is what makes for civil discourse.

Currently I find the notion of Intentional Civics useful when examining how to adjust to the new spatial dynamics of our environment.  Because the space outside of an individual is always active, it follows that in order to live and act responsibly we need attend carefully and consciously to the space between bodies. Intentional Civics activates the individual body’s awareness of the “civic-ness” of space and we therefore work to actively strengthen its bonds, regardless of people’s culture or profession.  Looking towards our as yet undecided future, I do believe that the quality of our lives will be contingent upon our own active civic choices. I imagine that Intentional Civics depends upon mutual respect, compromise, collaborative decision making, respect for freedom and human dignity, empathy, open mindedness, tolerance, ethical integrity and responsibility to a larger good.

Directly preceding the outbreak of the Coronavirus in the United States, SITI Company had premiered a production of Euripides The Bacchae at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. A few days after opening, and just as the company was settling in for a long run, it became apparent to Joe Haj, the Artistic Director of the Guthrie, speaking to his Board and senior team, that the theater would have to close, and the two productions on its stages, our Bacchae and Twelfth Night, would be shut down.  Of course, the disappointment was palpable for everyone involved, but there was also great concern for the many weeks of actor paychecks that were in jeopardy. Despite the financial toll on the theater, Joe Haj made a decision to pay SITI Company actors in full for the entire run despite the brutal curtailment of performances. He spoke to his Board and senior staff to share not only his compassion for the actors but also to explain his reasoning.  “One day this thing will be over,” he said, “who do we want to be remembered as having been?”   

In addition to Joe Haj’s resolve about actor salaries, the Guthrie also invited the actors to stay in the theater’s apartments for as long as they needed shelter.  Joe’s action, his decision to take care of the actors’ finances and wellbeing, is a good example of Intentional Civics. We reach out to one another with a responsibility for the whole and a care for the space between us.

It is too early to draw many conclusions about what is happening right now, but meanwhile the dimension of space is definitely amplified, and we need to pay attention and help one another out while we can.  As we are physically distancing, we should work diligently to strengthen social ties. This is how we shall manage to get through the crisis and come out better on the other side. The shared clapping for health and essential workers that has become a nightly ritual in some boroughs of New York is just one way for people to bond.  Social connections and social responsibility are imperative for health and well-being.  We need to remain connected and know that we can be collaborative from more than six feet away.