THR Web Features   /   April 21, 2020

The Dance of the Porcupines

On Finding the Balance between Proximity and Distance in Times of Pandemic

Marie Kolkenbrock

( Detail from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. (Via Wikimedia Commons.))

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | The Dance Of The Porcupines


One of Sigmund Freud’s favorite objects was a little figurine of a porcupine. In his 1924 text, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud writes that “according to Schopenhauer’s famous simile of the freezing porcupines no one can tolerate a too intimate approach to his neighbor.” Arthur Schopenhauers tale, also known as the “Hedgehog’s Dilemma,” is about a group of porcupines that huddled together for warmth on a cold day, only to disperse again when they felt one anothers spines. In a similar manner, human porcupines need to find the right amount of interpersonal distance in order to coexist peacefully.


Through the current global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the hedgehog’s dilemma is suddenly and uncomfortably clear. Distance tends to be conceptualized as either a problem for living in modern societies and so something to overcome, or, conversely, as a solution to some of the problems in modern societies and so something to be cultivated. In the current crisis, we see that these two approaches can go together: There is the necessity of social distancing but also the need to overcome interpersonal, cultural, and spatial distances in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. It is obvious that the necessity of physical distancing creates the need to find new ways to be close to one another in private relationships as well as in local communities and in societies. Visible actual and symbolic gestures of love and generosity, such as volunteers calling isolated elderly citizens, neighbors picking up prescriptions and supplies for one another, or clapping for healthcare staff, will help us feel emotionally connected in this state of exception where personal contact is severely restricted.

However, there is also a risk that we will compensate for the current sense of crisis and isolation with too much closeness at both a private and a societal level. And this has problematic personal and political consequences. As we now are forced to cultivate several new forms of distancing practices, it might be worth taking a look at some examples from the cultural theory and history of distance in order to reflect on their potential impact on our sense of “togetherness” in private relationships, within our societies, and across nation states.

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Scholarship on the cultural and intellectual history of distancing practices has shown that a number of rather different twentieth-century writers and thinkers, who are all concerned with navigating ethical ways of social coexistence, promote the cultivation of interpersonal distancing, in particular through tact, reserve, and individualism. The philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner, and in particular his 1924 book The Limits of Community. A Critique of Social Radicalism, provides a paradigmatic example. Writing in the troubling times of Weimar Germany, Plessner suggests that establishing distance among individuals is the key to a well-functioning society.

However, Plessner adds, distancing practices need to be smoothed over by conventionally created codes of conduct. He speaks of “the virtuous mastery of forms of play where persons come close to each other without meeting…. The offensive indifference, coldness, and rudeness of living past each other is made ineffective through forms of politeness, respectfulness, and attentiveness.” Just as the hedgehog’s dilemma uses spatial distance metaphorically in order to express our need for the right balance between intimacy and detachment, Plessner is concerned with maintaining a respectful interpersonal distance between individuals via  tactful role playing.

Of course, this is different from our current situation in which our most urgent concern is to maintain the right degree of physical separation in order to protect ourselves from infection. But on an everyday basis, we have to negotiate new rules for interpersonal interaction. Foregoing the handshake is more polite than offering it. Crossing over to the other side of the road can now be seen as a sign of respect for the other’s comfort rather than an expression of animosity. Besides the unease or even fear that the pandemic itself inevitably brings, it is this disruption of everyday conventions that engenders feelings of unsettledness and irritability. As this state of exception threatens to become the new normal for quite a while, we will require new conduct codes, as Plessner would say—new forms of respect, politeness, and tact—in order to ease these feelings, to compensate for the new distancing practices, and to make our minimal contact with strangers bearable. And we also will have to think about more distanced or, if you will, “tactful” ways to communicate in order to minimize what I want to call the “contagion of fear.”

And during this  pandemic, we can be certain that many of us will experience varying degrees of fear. It is certainly not helpful to go through these feelings alone. But fear, just like the virus itself, is extremely contagious. We have to think about how we deal with our own fear and that of others. How do we create conversations that will help one person talk about their fear but won’t leave the other depleted and overcome by fear in turn?

The sociologist Richard Sennett distinguishes between sympathy and empathy: While sympathy eliminates the distance between self and other through an act of identification, empathy is a “cooler” and “more demanding” form of dialogue that does not aim to “leap” over the gap of social or personal distance between people but “meets another person on his or her own terms.” With many uncomfortable emotions, but fear in particular, an empathetic listener tends to be more helpful than a sympathetic one. The less tied to individual circumstances our fear is, the harder it will be to find listeners that are able to maintain this right balance of distance and closeness.

In times of uncertainty, we want to come closer together. Visible gestures, actual and symbolic, of love and generosity will help us remain emotionally connected even as personal contact is severely restricted. Engagement within a community, such as filling pharmacy prescriptions for an elderly neighbor, supporting the small corner bookshop through online orders, or doing the shopping for a friend in self-isolation, is what’s sorely needed right now. But at a political level, it is necessary to consider what one could call the “proximity bias” of solidarity and how uncontrolled fear may reinforce this bias. Spatial and cultural distances influence our ability to feel empathy: As the psychologist and cognitive scientist Paul Bloom has argued in his book, Against Empathy, it is “far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary.”

The dichotomy of “vulnerable” and “scary” is of particular importance in the context of the current crisis. When confronted with the fear of infection, there is a risk of recognizing certain groups as “vulnerable” to infection, while others are merely seen as “scary,” in the sense that they are perceived as dangerous carriers of the virus that need to be kept at a distance. Of course, the perception of who falls into which group is inextricably linked to the proximity bias of solidarity. Fear of infection in particular has a long history of racially charged exclusionary distancing practices that also have become apparent in the current pandemic. From violent verbal and physical attacks on people of Asian descent in many countries to the president of the United States insisting on referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” we are experiencing how the fear of infection tends to fuel racist language and actions.

Research on the “politics of bacteriology” has shown that the imagination of pathogens as “evil invaders” and the simultaneous conflation of pathogens and entire social and ethnic groups originates at the end of the nineteenth century. The then-new insight that pathogens could cross all socially constructed borders and infect individuals from all social classes and ethnic backgrounds did not inspire a politics of equality and solidarity. Rather, the transgressive quality and the invisibility of germs became linked to an imagination of boundaries, of their potential permeability, and of the need to defend them. This was emphasized through the use of militaristic metaphors for pathogens, such as “invaders” or “invisible enemies.”

In the current media coverage of the pandemic, we encounter once again the proliferating use of war metaphors. Of course, the efforts to make citizens comply with government guidelines of social distancing and self-isolation are needed. But militaristic metaphors and invocations of national belonging tend to lead to the exclusion of or even violence towards already marginalized groups. These formulations conflate the individual and the national body, which inevitably fuels the fear of and aggression toward the “foreign other.” While governments all over the world ask their citizens to show one another solidarity by observing the rules of social distancing, many nations have also closed their borders and suspended existing programs for asylum seekers. 

Can a focus on our shared vulnerability and the virus’s disregard for socially constructed boundaries enforce a more all-compassing and less territorial sense of connectedness and solidarity? A similar argument, namely the idea that our biological sameness could—and should—inspire in us an obligation to maintain peace, justice, and nonviolence, was made by the German physiologist Georg Friedrich Nicolai in 1915, the second year of World War I. In his pacifist manifesto titled The Biology of War, Nicolai proposed that human solidarity and love had a biological foundation in he called “germ plasm”—a nineteenth-century theory about hereditary relations and a precursor for DNA theory. While the body, the “somatic plasm,” separates us, argued Nicolai, the “germ plasm” connects us to other human beings and bridges the distance between our physical boundaries. Nicolai thus used the argument of universal biological connectedness in order to counter patriotic chauvinism. 

Nicolai’s example suggests that a global crisis (such as a world war or a pandemic) can create the need to invoke the belief in the “goodness” of mankind, or in what one could call the “power of love.” There is certainly something compelling and hopeful about the idea that this pandemic could at least make us come together in new ways and perhaps bridge distances that seemed unsurpassable before; that the virus could even make us somehow kinder, more loving, and more connected—amid all the suffering, anxiety, and grief it is creating, and despite the long periods of social distancing and isolation it requires.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with focusing on human kindness. And at a personal level, connecting with our actual loved ones and perhaps building new support networks in our neighborhoods and communities will be essential to get us through this crisis.  But if we are hoping that the pandemic will bring about a more global sense of solidarity, we need to find ways to deal with its proximity bias. Rather than hoping to extend the feelings of love we share only in our closest relationships, it may be more useful to focus on the way the pandemic brings into focus our interdependency.

Perhaps this quite literal experience of what Judith Butler calls “the reversibility of proximity and distance”—“elsewhere” is now “here”—could inform a new ethics and even more crucially a new politics of cohabitation. Butler’s recent work is concerned with such an “affirmation of interdependency” on “egalitarian terms.” Significantly, accepting and emphasizing this global interdependence does not mean that we must have the same emotional response to distant strangers that we have to those closest to us. Butler argues that it is precisely the involuntary and unchosen nature of our global interdependency that engenders “obligations to preserve the lives of those we may not love, those we may never love, do not know, and did not choose.”

This sudden and gruesome political crisis produces paralyzing fear, and it is healing when we respond with emphatic proclamations of solidarity, love, and gratitude. It is wonderful that we are singing from our balconies, clapping for healthcare professionals, and have our kids paint “thank you” signs for delivery drivers. However, we have to recognize these gestures as momentary emotional damage control that is not sustainable. After the first shock of this global health crisis, we can take the opportunity to take a step back. Whether it is the Western suspicion of China and other countries (a legacy, in part, of colonial arrogance), harrowing funding cuts and privatization of national health care systems, the obliteration of paid sick leave in many low-income jobs, or neglect and isolation of the elderly—we will be able to recognize the ethical and political failures that the persistent denial of our local and global interdependency has produced and that the pandemic has laid bare.