Gathered and Scattered

Posted Dec. 12, 2022 by Dougald Hine

On the remarkable possibilities for conviviality through screens and cameras, but also their limitations.

There’s a wood pigeon nestling in the arbour overhead, a neighbour’s dog barking in the distance, a splash from the millpond beside us. There are two cups of coffee on the table, a microphone between them, and a lot of laughter. Two years and four months after Ed Gillespie and I began a podcast called The Great Humbling, we sit down to record this thirtieth episode face-to-face. It’s only four days since we met in the flesh for the first time.

Whatever else there is to say about the Covid time, it has created this genre of curious experiences, where we’ve spent long enough talking to someone through the medium of Zoom (or whatever platform) to feel we know each other, without having breathed the same air, and then we get to meet in person and see what the screen version left us unprepared for. Mostly, this involves surprise at each other’s height.

This podcast recording provides a striking case study, because the process is so familiar, honed over four series, yet doing it in person works so differently. What it brings home to me is how much energy goes into summoning up the experience of presence, when we work through screens and cameras, and how effortlessly presence emerges when we sit together over cups of coffee with the same breeze and the same noises in the background. Yet that effortlessness has to be set against another kind of effort – in this case, two days journey by train across Europe, with all the body tiredness that brings and (as things turn out) a mild bout of Covid picked up on the way home. So we have – not quite an equation, as these two kinds of effort are not commensurable, but a balance between the two, one that tires the body and one (as anyone coming to the end of a day of back-to-back Zooms can testify) that tires the soul.

In the spring of 2020, when the Italian government announced that all university teaching for the coming year would take place online, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben declared that the university as a ‘form of life’ was over. He had a point: an undergraduate education is short enough that a one-year interruption of physical presence is sufficient to break the thread of cultural transmission of all the things you do when you were meant to be going to lectures. I don’t work in a university, so I’ve little to add about how this worked out in practice, except to share one story from that spring.

Fifty kilometres down the road from the small Swedish town where Anna Björkman and I are slowly creating a school called HOME, there is an old university city which I visit a few times a year as a guest lecturer. In April 2020, the lecture I was due to give was moved to Zoom. Since I work internationally, have family in different time zones, and avoid flying, I’d had cause to be grateful for such tools before they became the platform on which the life of whole societies depends. But I was unprepared for what happened that day. Because as the students popped up in their rectangles, sitting in bedrooms or on porches, and as I spoke and answered their questions, I had a distinct sense of meeting each other in a way that hadn’t happened when I had taught the same session in a lecture theatre the year before. Maybe it was the liminal quality of those early Covid weeks, or the aptness of the theme to the time – the lecture was on ‘Hope and Despair’ – but I said to Anna afterwards, ‘That’s the first Zoom call I’ve ever had that was better than being in the same room.’

The experience of that session prompted Anna and I to issue invitations to an online series called Homeward Bound. Out of this grew an ongoing community, The Long Table, with over a hundred members. People often tell us they come away from these sessions energised, where most video calls leave them drained. After hundreds of hours of teaching and hosting sessions over Zoom, I’m curious as to what it is that makes the difference. Why do we sometimes break through into conviviality, despite the limitations of the technologies?

It seems to me that the answer has something to do with ritual and something to do with imagination, two forces which are often underestimated.

The aspect of ritual hit me when I joined a series of calls hosted by Vanessa Andreotti and the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective. Through the autumn of 2020, we met weekly around the theme of “Living at the End of the World”. The conversations had an unusual depth; it felt as though we were part of something larger.

This must have had to do with our awareness that, each time we met, our online gatherings were accompanied by ceremonies taking place in two Indigenous communities that are part of the collective, one in Brazil and the other in Canada. It’s humbling to know that there are people tending a ritual fire with the intention of aiding your work.

A further clue came midway through the first call. We took a short break, everyone muting and switching off cameras, and I stepped out onto the balcony to watch a full moon rising over the building opposite. When I came back in, I noticed the image showing in my rectangle while the camera was off: a photograph taken at an exhibition in honour of the storyteller, art critic and essayist John Berger. I am standing in front of a large photograph of Berger, so that he appears to be leaning over my shoulder.

Gathered and Scattered

Photograph by Jana Chiellino, 2012.

Looking at this, I thought of all the others on the call, and how each of us had come with elders leaning in over our shoulders. In that moment, I was sure that the largeness of presence I had felt reflected that layer of reality on which a far larger, wiser crowd had shown up that night than just the thirty of us bodily tuning in from our various corners of the world.

I remember the Scottish environmentalist Alastair McIntosh, talking about how, for his parents’ generation in the Outer Hebrides, when loved ones were across the water, in a world not yet hooked up to instant telecommunications, a death would often be felt and known by a member of the family, before the news had chance to arrive by boat. When the circumstances of our lives leave less room for such experiences, they retreat from common knowledge and become esoteric in a way that has not always been the case.

“Until very recently,” I had told participants in Homeward Bound, “a group of people could be gathered or scattered, but it would have made no sense to be gathered and scattered at the same time. That is the strangeness of the moment we’re living in and the technologies we almost take for granted just now.” But the artist and drum maker Natasha Clarke made me think again: people have always had ways of being connected over distance, she said, it’s just that right now we assume these technologies are the only way of doing it.

One piece of evidence that could strengthen that claim comes from Martin Shaw. As a wilderness rites of passage guide, he has taken hundreds of participants to conduct four-day vigils in the wilder corners of the British Isles. Each participant chooses a stone from the site where they will be sitting, carries it for several days, then leaves it in a circle at the campfire where Martin and his team will be. “For the next four days,” Martin’s own teacher instructed him, “what those stones tell you will be the clearest picture of how each of these folks is doing.” But it took years before he found the knack of getting “inside” the stones:

I can’t remember what broke open – after truly countless hours just listening to my own brain chatter. Suddenly the rocks were sensual, fast-moving beings – they would heat up, turn cold, suddenly damp, and sensations of nausea, boredom, lust, terror would come next and then finally image. I would see quick shots from each quester’s spot, like the quick clicks of a photo. Unless an emergency, we would never intervene with the process. —Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language.

Don’t ask me how it works, I don’t think Martin would claim to know himself. But faced with a passage like this, and the description of an occasion when an emergency seen in the stones led to an intervention, we have to choose between putting our fingers in our ears, telling ourselves that the witness is lying or deluded, or opening to a possibility that lies beyond what we are meant to take seriously if we want to be taken seriously.

I bring in Martin’s strange story of the stones, along with Alastair’s recollection of the everyday role of the second sight in a pre-telecommunications culture, because my hunch is that there’s something here that could be reverse-engineered. Or not engineered, since I’m pretty sure whatever makes it work will only come out to play if we’re willing to abandon a purely mechanistic approach to the world and inhabit “a living cosmos”. But if we’re looking for what it takes to summon and sustain presence over distance, even with the high-tech tools currently at our disposal, the approach embodied in those stones has answers for us. The trick is not to look for a specific technique, but to look through the technique to the way of being it exemplifies. (This is the distinction made by Tyson Yunkaporta in Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Will Save the World between ‘products of thought’ and ‘processes of thinking’.)

The most basic example I can give is the power of open-ended repetition. When a group gathers at the same time each week or month, if there is life in what happens during those gatherings, then the simple commitment of repetition begins to sculpt a hollow in time, akin to the “lay” that a hare makes, its form imprinted in the grass, the place to which it returns to sleep. In one of our Long Table conversations, the Australian artist and community philosopher Kelly Lee Hickey offered the thought that, when we gather in this way, “Time becomes the space in which we meet.”

Let’s finish with a note of caution, recalling Agamben’s sense of loss at the virtualisation of the academy. Remarkable things are possible, if we use these technologies with a sufficiently animist approach. If it’s possible to ‘get inside’ a stone, then why not a computer, which is, after all, an arrangement of geological materials?

Yet I say, beware! First, because the institutions of today’s dominant culture were built to fit a mechanistic world. When these institutions are transposed to virtual spaces, the results can be dire.

Secondly, because your computer is not only an arrangement of geological materials, but also of human labour. There is no supply of coltan that is clean of the possibility of child slavery. The landscapes devastated by mining, the lives spent in factories that drive workers to suicide. Whatever you are using these technologies for, it had better be good, given the cost of everything that goes into them. And you may want to think twice about trying to get “inside” such an artefact.

Finally, while I’m grateful for all I’ve found in these ways of gathering, there are times when I become acutely aware of the brittleness of what we are doing. Through our imaginations, we enter into a shared experience of presence – but there’s always the chance that a misspoken word or misunderstanding breaks the spell, and leaves us noticing how distant our bodies are from each other. When damage happens, it’s harder to put right than if we truly were in the same room, or living down the road from each other. And the communities forged in these spaces lack some of the basic qualities of human community. When there is bereavement, we are too far away to show up at the door with a lasagne.

This summer, working on the scaffolding at the end of the Red House, the old Swedish barn we are slowly converting into a schoolhouse, a couple stopped to talk to me and Jack Richardson, our artist-carpenter and community-builder-in-residence. I’m chatting to the husband in Swedish, and in the background I hear Jack explaining in English what he thinks the school is about: “We’ve been living in this way where it’s so easy to pick up and move from place to place, but if this way of living is coming to an end, then how do we learn to be at home again in the places where we find ourselves?” It’s as good an explanation of this school called HOME as I have heard. There’s a paradox in using these tools and creating these gathered-yet-scattered communities, it sits at an odd angle to the work of learning to be at home, but it may be part of what is called for along the way. Let’s use them in ways that give us a chance of finding each other and relearning skills we’ll need if we find ourselves in a world where neither Zoom calls nor train journeys across continents are any longer to be taken for granted.

Only the gratuitous commitment of friends can enable me to practice the asceticism required for modern near-paradoxes: as that of renouncing systems analysis while typing on my Toshiba. —Ivan Illich, The Cultivation of Conspiracy

This text is featured as part of FoAM's Anarchive