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Vulnerability. Enclosed Living: The Full Spaces of Emptiness
Marina Ciampi, Department of Social Sciences and Economics, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.
The threat of the virus that struck the city of Wuhan was initially perceived as a serious health risk, though limited to the Chinese territory. That is, confined to faraway places, whose traditions and behavioural habits differ greatly from Western ones, especially with reference to the promiscuity between humans and animals, and the hygienic conditions of so-called "wet markets" (animals slaughtered at the time of purchase, sale of entrails). To date, the most accredited hypothesis is that the Coronavirus, as a pathogen, originates from animals and has developed the ability to infect humans: the same “spillover event” that spread SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2002.
What generated the initial Sinophobia seen in the Western world was the ease of transmission and contagion of the virus, its spread through air transport and tourism, the complexity of timely diagnosis (due to the similarity of the Coronavirus with other strains of flu viruses), and its provenance from an "exotic" country, historically blamed for other historical epidemics (Black Plague, Asian flu, SARS). These elements were then exacerbated by ambiguous media information, mostly based on generic scientific reports, which highlighted the difficulty in finding effective treatments to contain the high morbidity.
The inaccuracy, indeed the confusion, of the early picture, had a double effect: it delayed the implementation of necessary preventive measures in countries not directly involved, and created the conditions for an inadequate perception of the risk by communities and public institutions. Many felt unwisely and unheedingly immune from the possibility of contracting the disease, protected by advanced health care systems they believed could easily manage the emergency. This attitude reflects the “trust in expert systems” theorised by Anthony Giddens, which plays a central role in modern institutions, and is based on the latter’s knowledge and expertise .
The conditions of modernity consider that trust always operates in risky environments, in which varying levels of safety – i.e. protection from danger – can be achieved. Trust and risk are intertwined, yet the latter always implies danger, understood as a factor that threatens the desired results and compromises the safety of a given situation. The experience of this new threat come from afar was emblematic, from the very start, of the delicate and precarious balance between trust, safety, risk and danger: factors that distinguish the condition of our global risk society.
Without any warning, entire populations have been exposed to risk scenarios, first within national boundaries, then increasingly global in their reach, ultimately losing any certainty that the risk could be neutralised or at least contained. In response to the rapid spread of the disease, the sudden and unexpected announcements of the World Health Organisation (WHO) placed the scientific community centre-stage, highlighting its fragility and throwing doubt on its authority (a similar line of thought had caused Karl Popper to claim that it stands on unsteady ground) . When facing threats to people’s health, the tone inevitably becomes more dramatic, since, compared to any other type of risk (environmental, economic, and technological), they touch upon one of the main shared historical factors used to define progress: the reduction of health risks guaranteed by improved hygiene conditions, and the development of modern medicine. Individuals and communities have thus become aware of the vulnerability of their social systems and health institutions, coming to terms with a threat that has rapidly crossed Chinese national borders, thereby becoming a pandemic.
Day after day, official statistics have recorded increasing numbers of deaths and infections, representing an unprecedented health emergency in a mercilessly abstract manner. This crisis has imposed high states of alert and restrictive political measures by all governments, ultimately enforcing the total closure of activities and the confinement of people. Today we live with the "lockdown", a term that has abruptly made its way into the vocabulary and daily life of entire communities, and whose meaning was ignored until yesterday. Isolation, imposed social distancing, and the fear of catching the virus, have become an integral part of our current lifestyles, and have allowed us to rediscover two essential things. On one hand, a sense of limit and our temporality as mortal beings; a crucial realisation since, as Martin Heidegger believed, only when we become aware of striding towards death do we acquire a full development of the self. According to the German philosopher, death should not be understood as a final conclusion, but as a home, a shelter for the self, a necessary condition for understanding every cognitive and experiential path as pure possibility. On the other hand, we have rediscovered the awareness that is inevitably tied to a you and an us, and that we are linked to a whole without which we cannot imagine our existence, and of which we are each a distinct, conscious and responsible part.
The violence of the virus is not only translated into the mortality rates but also lies in its ability to paralyze the existence of entire communities. Suddenly, the frenzied and tireless individuals of our contemporary world, who made traveling and mobility a symbol of their inalienable rights, have been forced to fall back on themselves and their families, and to carry out their everyday lives within their homes, inventing new strategies for managing time and experimenting with smart work. In different ways, the front doors of our homes have been shut, transforming themselves from boundaries between the private and the public, to pure elements of geometric separation between the inside and the outside, the latter now devoid of sociality. The home as a place all of a sudden has become a refuge and a prison, a site of safety and punishment.
Even the idea of inhabiting, in its deepest sense, has been profoundly distorted: our new existential condition does not imply a “return”, the sweetness of nostos (homecoming), but only an ever-identical present that feeds on its obsessive repetitiveness, accompanied by metropolitan silence, completely hollowed out of its “nervous” vitality and of the ego-alter relationship. For those experiencing “captivity” as complete isolation, the home – with its narrow confines – can even become an oppressive labyrinth within which dimensions of sociability must be sought virtually by means of digital technologies. The damage to our individual freedom caused by the obligation to stay home – which is itself a privilege compared to those who do not own one – can only be balanced by the precautionary effect which the domestic space guarantees. The interieur coincides with an actual “fortress”, a shield through which to ward off an evil that escapes our perceptions, because "it does not sting the nose or the eyes and is not perceptible by the senses".
The experience of inhabiting a place does not only refer to the vital space to which one belongs. It is also the constitutive moment of the social structure, since it has to do with everything that concerns the individual as a social actor (singly or in a group). These considerations encouraged me to start a visual-sociology research, still in an exploratory phase, to observe the “new” urban landscape of my city, Rome. The photographic medium has allowed me to produce a record made of images, not impressionistic or empathic, but documentary: a sort of urgent sociology. Urban space is the foundation of society, a setting for coexistence which interprets and embodies social phenomena: modes of interaction, sentiments, and different forms of association “fill” it in different ways. It comes to life thanks to social action, and it has an inherent multifunctionality which allows it to acquire different meanings depending on the subjects that in turn engage and live it at different times of the day. The loss of the human dimension delivers urban spaces to emptiness, silence, a shrunken identity; to the silencing of the frenzy that is the main feature of the nervous life of the city, both in the centre and in the suburbs.The lockdown has allowed the metropolitan organism to breathe, interrupting the chaotic and congested flows of its arteries, and to take back its historical, artistic, and monumental beauty.
The desolation is interrupted by the sounds of nature, and the construction sites that never stop working on the city, punctuated by the strolling of dog-walkers, runners, and tireless couriers on their bikes.
This is Rome in its confinement, deprived of its social, relational, commercial, and recreational aspects, suspended in an a-temporal dimension that lends it an almost metaphysical appearance. An absolute idea of space does not exist. In its place, a plurality of spaces that belong so naturally to our everyday lives that it is difficult, when distracted by our routines, to notice their presence. These life-spaces, usually taken for granted, emerge in their essential nature from the photos collected, and, while empty and desolate, continue to be – as Georg Simmel observes –bearers and expressions of a reciprocal sociological action.
 Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
 Popper, K. (1963) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
 Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
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