If Looks Could Kill: Social Distancing, Hosting, and The Look

by Paul Cantrell

Two days before my job closed its doors, some colleagues of mine were discussing the upcoming season of Westworld. Now, I watched exactly one episode of Westworld several years ago. With that said, let me tell you all about it. Westworld is a show in which epicurean tourists or “guests” pay handsomely to attend a lavish, bawdy Wild West cosplay theme park to patronize, investigate, and fornicate with android “hosts” without fear of physical or legal reprisal. It’s basically Hedonism II but with saloons, spittoons, and even more robots. Also Michael Crichton. No matter.

Then, just as they were talking about Season Three and Aaron Paul, the most remarkable thing happened: one of them sneezed. The chat stopped in its tracks. We were all on high alert at this point, and I shot the guy a jokingly paranoid look. “Allergies!” he cried. “It’s just allergies! Somebody opened a window!” I realized three things in this moment: one, it is truly unfortunate timing that this whole coronavirus thing is coinciding with pollen season; two, our current situation is not so unlike the TV show Westworld; and three, there is much more at stake here than I’d thought.

Westworld is not the first show to do this, of course. Before the Western “hosts,” there were the robotic Cylons masquerading as humans in Battlestar Galactica, the “replicant” impostors of Blade Runner, and all manner of others of which I’m not even aware but am happy to hear all about one this article posts. I’d frankly be shocked if Star Trek didn’t do something like this at some point.

What I’m referring to here is mistrust versus distrust. Outright distrust of someone is typically earned—i.e., I lent Johnny money; Johnny never paid me back; ergo, I distrust Johnny and no longer lend him money. Mistrust, however, is something altogether more nuanced. It happens in a subtle sidelong glance, a lowering or raising of the brow, or, if you’re Larry David, a long look down the nostrils into one’s eyes and indeed, one’s very soul. (Incidentally, this is where the word “suspicion” comes from: the Latin sub + spicere, meaning to look either under or up to but also to mistrust.)

This mistrust is rooted in “the uncanny,” a subject on which Freud has written at length. Jentsch in particular does well to note the effectiveness of leaving a reader wondering whether a character is in fact an automaton, but without calling attention to this suspicion. We know this in popular culture from life-like wax museum figures, the moving eyes of a mannequin—or full-on animation in the case of Today’s Special and, well, Mannequin—as well as the popular Twilight Zone trope of dolls and ventriloquist dummies come to life and such (or Seinfeld’s “Is that you, Mr. Marbles? Mr. Marbles??”).

Mr Marbles
Mr. Marbles??

This same uncanny feeling is produced each time we encounter a potentially sick or infected person. We may look at him or her askance, with more than a little suspicion at the threat that he or she may pose, and here’s the kicker: simply by being there. The suspicion, what’s more, may be mutual. But what did you ever do to deserve such a look? And what, for that matter, did they ever do to you? Once again, as ever, we’re not in traffic; we are traffic.

Even in this time of “social distancing,” we find ourselves necessarily—albeit briefly, one hopes—in the presence of others. Perhaps you still have work to go to in a bustling metropolis. Perhaps you’re on a quick grocery supply run. Perhaps you’re taking care of yourself by taking a quick walk so as not to go stir crazy with cabin fever. Surely there is a way to do these things responsibly and without incident, yes?

Alright, so check this out. Let me kick you a scenario: I walk the dog, see an oncoming passerby. Now, am I giving him a wide berth to make him more comfortable or myself? And does it really even matter, so long as the berth is in fact given? Why call it “giving berth” in the first place? That’s needlessly confusing. Nevertheless, that look, that “exchange of glances” truly is an exchange in the sense that a transaction is occurring.

This transaction is one of psychic energy—you know, vibes, juju, and so on. If I give a mistrustful look, I may instill guilt and possibly even fear in the other, who may then choose to reciprocate with a look all his own. Speaking of guilt, remember the phrase Well excuse me for living? Well, that is exactly what’s happening here. We are looking to each other to somehow be absolved of existing in the first place, for having breath we must exhale, for simply having lungs which cough and sneeze.

However, if I smile at the passerby, he is likely to feel at ease, perhaps even smile back at me, and this entire Machiavellian phenomenological hellscape of the world-stealing weaponized gaze is averted altogether. I recommend smiling. Or nodding politely. Or, you know, just look somewhere else. Plenty of other places to look, after all.

Listen, we can talk Buddhist or Cartesian or myriad and sundry other conceptions of the mind-body duality ’til we’re all blue in the face. The fact of the matter is that one cannot help having a body. It is, as a matter of fact, the very most basic prerequisite for being a human. Until we figure out how to live life as disembodied personalities like in that one Doctor Who episode with the cat nurse nuns, this is the deal for us humans. (And let’s face it. We simply don’t have that cat nurse nun technology, people. Let’s be realistic, shall we?)

Cat Nuns
Someday… Someday…

And even in that one Doctor Who episode with the cat nurse nuns, each personality needed a host to inhabit. It is no coincidence that that episode took place in a hospital sick ward amidst an epidemic. The tie-in involves the notion of “hosting.” Just as the android “hosts” of Westworld are beholden to their programmers and guests in the traditional sense of the word (or so I assume; again, only saw the one episode), so are we all hosts of ourselves, in a sense.

Our bodies host our spirit, our personality, our soul, what have you. Edmund Spiess says it better than I can: “No, it is the love for the personality peculiar to him, found in his conscious possession, the love for his self, for the central self of his individuality, which attaches him to life.”

Each and every single person you see both possesses and bears witness to this singularly miraculous way of being. Each is a self within a body, its necessary home and, yes, even its host. It is not that self’s fault that its body is fallible any more than it is your own fault that yours is. Let us treat each other with this in mind: fairly, kindly, blamelessly. We must take care not to appear resentful of our fellow citizens merely for having bodies.

The word host itself has some rather curious origins. It appears at first to originate from the French hôte (“host”) but also traces back to the Latin hostis meaning “stranger” or “guest” (think “hostile”). A possible Germanic line traces it back to the proposed Indo-European “ghosti-s, stranger, guest, seen also in English guest.” I see no contradiction here. It makes perfect sense that there should be a fluid reciprocity of roles here, perhaps even bordering on mistaking one for the other, for what is a guest without a host or a host without a guest? Their relationship is entirely mutualistic. Each needs the other.

Civilizations have long reserved special punishments for citizens who mistreat guests. You know that phrase There’s a special place in Hell for (whatever)? Well, Dante’s Inferno actually does have a special section reserved exclusively for traitors to houseguests. It’s called Ptolomea, and it is literally just two levels above where Satan himself resides, chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. (It’s also the place where we learn, through Branca Doria, that a person’s soul can be in Hell while its body on earth hosts and is operated by a demon, but that’s a tale for another time.)

If we learned anything at all from Beauty and the Beast’s big “Be Our Guest” number, it’s this: the guest is king and queen. Say yes to the guest. Except in the current case involving coronavirus, where it is our moral, civic, and patriotic humanitarian duty to starve out that miserable malevolent fucker as much and as speedily as is humanly possible. We do this by denying it our bodies, thus denying it a host in which to live.

We’ve all been told to strive to be the host with the most. For once in our lives, I say to hell with that. Be the host with the least. Stay home as much as you can. Remember: not all heroes wear capes; some wear pajamas. We’re depending on you, and on each other. Take care, stay safe, and be well.

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