Between the Zoo and Foucault’s Great Confinement

As I suggested in previous posts, all moments of crisis reveal unseen aspects of human existence. They pick us up from the waters of our daily swim and give us a different perspective on the pond. Some force us to look at ourselves and each other differently, some help us discover previously-unknown truths about ourselves. All, however, are likely to put us on the spot.

When I injured both calf muscles in a skiing accident earlier this year, I couldn’t walk properly for weeks. Everywhere I went, I had to take baby steps, literally. My walking speed dropped from 3.2 to about 1 mph. It was intensely annoying, but also something of an eye-opener. For the first time in my life, I experienced the world a person suffering from mobility impairment would experience it. Almost overnight, space dilated like a balloon when you blow in it. As my perceived space expanded, time shrank, as it took me longer to do anything I used to do before. A trip to the office toilet suddenly became an epic odyssey, while the daily commutes and journeys had to be reviewed with a red pen. I also knew that while this was a temporary inconvenience for me, it wasn’t so for others, who’d have to struggle with it all their lives.

Then Covid-19 came and with it, the gentle age of confinement which pretty much everyone in the world is now familiar with. I say gentle because although we are told to stay indoors, most of us still enjoy the benefits of modernity: home deliveries, open supermarkets and communication channels. We’re far from living a dystopia, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. After all, we’re stuck within four walls, or several more, if you’re on the fortunate side of living space. Between you, me and the bedpost, it kinda sucks.

Shall I compare thee to an iron cage? Or perhaps to a zoo? A multitude of cages advertising a new brand of freedom. Vodafone drives it home: Staying connected while we stay apart. Never has the word apartment done more justice to its root: being apart, staying apart, in a separate place, in a separate cage. This terrible reality is most obvious in those disturbing, yet often uplifting, videos of Italian block residents coming out on the balcony to do a swan-song singalong.

Our cities are fast turning into cage-scapes, the streets emptying like walking lanes in a zoo after hours. The only noise comes from the cages themselves, and it’s often the noise of incarceration mitigated by whatever trick we use to view the picture beyond the bars without noticing the bars.

Michel Foucault described the period between the 17th and the mid-20th centuries in Western Europe as that of the ‘Great Confinement’, in which all deemed socially inadequate – beggars, petty criminals, social outcasts and those suffering from mental disorders – were confined to hospitals and other special institutions. They were collectively referred to as madmen and were shut out from polite, bourgeois society. We’ve outgrown the brutal age of the great confinement, thank God, but it seems that confinement hasn’t outgrown us. We’re chased back into our apartments and houses not as undesirables, but precisely because each of us counts. Our cages turn out to be made of gold, not iron, and the zoo becomes a place of quiet healing, not ominous captivity. Our great confinement, inasmuch as it’s observed by our neighbours and friends, is a measure of our greatness, resilience and patience, the cardinal virtues of a ailing body on its way to fitness recovered.

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