“I hope you’ve washed your hands”: the rebirth of the untouchable
Can the “social” aspect of “social distancing” reinvent segregation? This has become an urgent question as a new era dawns in the organization of public behavior. As touch reoccupies its central role in defining sociality, a raft of social regulations go hand-in-hand with the promise of a new sanitized and touchless existence. Both are designed to keep “us” at distance from the new frontlines of “them”: produce barriers that keep at bay a contaminating amalgam of essential service workers, urban protesters and migrants. Recent work in India around the practice of caste explores a complex phenomenology of touch, how it works, what it means, and how it is systematized to define an Other, that may have larger relevance in the barricades of protection we see everywhere in the pandemic. We may also see a resistance to a globalized unitary order defined by the possible return of radical touch: in the return to offline, in physicality of Occupy movements, and in new political and economic frontlines that might also see the rebirth of the proverbial untouchable.
KEYWORDS: Coronavirus, pandemic, untouchability, caste, frontline workers, sociality, touching, radical touch
Ashish Rajadhyaksha is an independent scholar with several books on the Indian cinema (e.g. Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency, 2009). He has curated a number of art exhibitions including (with Geeta Kapur) the “Bombay-Mumbai 1992-2001” section of Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (Tate Modern, 2001) and You Don’t Belong, a festival of independent documentary, video and fiction, in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou and Kunming (2011), and “Make-Belong: Films in Kochi from China and Hong Kong,” Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2015).