In Heterotopic Times; (Im)mobility, Social-Distancing, and Surveillance

Published 25 March 2020 / By Georgios Glouftsios

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Sunday, 8 March 2020: Together with some friends and my partner L, we were discussing our plans for the summer holidays while enjoying wine in a pizzeria hidden in the mountains that surround Trento – a picturesque city in Northern Italy where I work. I often commute long-distance to meet L and spend the weekends with her. She is a doctor working in Piemonte – some 300 km away from Trento – which is one of the Italian regions that has been affected the most by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of our weekends are somewhat utopic – Italian mountains, lakes, sea, nice weather, food, wine, museums, and welcoming people – this one was different. We learned about the increase of COVID-19 cases in Italy and, while discussing our plans for the summer, L received a call from a colleague asking her to return urgently to Piemonte because the government was about to lock down the country.

Eleven days after that Sunday, I find myself writing these words while being isolated in my flat in Trento. Time seems to have stopped. Every day feels the same as the previous one. Something changes, however: the number of victims announced through a distressing televised choreography every evening at 18:30. Only yesterday, 475 people lost their lives. I read a news story about a photograph depicting a long queue of military vehicles that transfer dead bodies outside Bergamo – a city in the region of Lombardy – because its crematorium is ‘overcrowded’. This photograph is perhaps the most powerful manifestation of our aleatory, disrupting and disturbing times. We are not in war, but military vehicles do carry dead bodies!

To use one of the thinking tools introduced by Michel Foucault, we experience a ‘heterotopia’ – that is, a place extraordinary, a situation different from the normal conditions of social interaction, an unfamiliar milieu in which we are asked to take precautions, stop moving, commuting, hugging and kissing, and stay home. In such heterotopic times, practices and dynamics of (im)mobility are entangled with fears, anxieties and the grim realities of pandemic death.

Of course, the entanglement of (im)mobility and death is not a new phenomenon, especially in Europe. Consider the deadly waters of the Mediterranean Sea that illegalised migrants cross in the hope for a better future, only to experience the violence of the necropolitical EU border control apparatus. What COVID-19 changes, nevertheless, is that we come to feel this entanglement in everyday spaces. Such places of social interaction are now transformed into contagious heterotopias. In this context, I think that the current situation requires reflection upon three seemingly simple, but in fact complex and politically important, questions.

(1) Who is made (im)mobile?

We often understand mobility as a kind of capital, a right and resource that not everyone enjoys and has access to. Refugees and migrants, for example, are racialised subjects that have been traditionally excluded from the safe and speedy corridors that organise the journeys of privileged travellers (e.g. businesspeople, academics, tourists, etc.). In these heterotopic times, it is puzzling that immobility also emerges as capital. Some of us have the possibility to work remotely from home and still get a salary. I do not claim that remote working is a panacea. Some people struggle to meet increasing demands for productivity because they need to take care of kids, or because they experience psychological problems resulting from isolation. Yet, to some extent, remote workers are privileged. Consider those who risk viral infections by getting stacked in buses and metros to commute on a daily basis to perform their (often low paid) labour – cleaners, maintainance workers, bus-drivers, factory and logistics workers, supermarket staff – as it happens in major cities that were hit by the pandemic, like Milan. Society is made immobile, but only for some of us. COVID-19 destabilises our understanding of mobility as capital, generating questions about the unequal distribution of immobility.

(2) Social distancing for who?

We are asked to stay home. To rephrase Bruno Latour’s words, since our bodies are the ‘mutable mobiles’ that carry the virus, we should avoid social interactions. Italian cities are locked down. We can only go to work, grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals. Restrictions on mobility are represented as essential policy instruments to ensure social distancing. Yet, in these heterotopic times, we should not forget that many remain enclosed in spaces where social distancing, as well as basic hygiene conditions, are not always guaranteed. Consider those confined in the overcrowded prisons of Salerno and Naples who rioted last week to demand better conditions of incarceration. Consider also those newly arrived migrants who are put into quarantine in reception centres and hotspots, many of whom will soon find themselves in bureaucratic limbo because, as it turns out, the processing of asylum applications will be slowed down due to the emergency. We are kept at-a-distance to stay healthy and preserve our future bonds. But what happens to all those vulnerable bodies trapped in spaces where social distancing is not possible?

(3) How are mobilities regulated through practices of control and surveillance?

In these heterotopic times, people commuting and moving into public spaces are transformed into threatening, dangerous and risky subjects whose mobilities are monitored and controlled through high-tech surveillance devices. Indeed, the COVID-19 emergency has legitimised the implementation of controversial surveillance measures that target sick bodies; for example, in Israel where intelligence authorities are using phone-snooping technology to track patients. In Italy, we see the parallel emergence of a low-tech kind of surveillance, which is not enacted by state authorities in a top-down panoptic fashion, but requires the active participation of people on the move. When commuting – either short or long-distance – people should fill and sign a self-declaration form that provides details including their itinerary and the precise reasons why they need to move. When checked by police officers, commuters should submit this form, and it is then decided whether their reasons for commuting are legitimate. We should reflect upon how this paper-based surveillance reconfigures the governing of mobility in public spaces; understand how low-tech devices are integrated into high-tech apparatuses of control; explore the techniques that mobile subjects employ to blur the surveillant gaze of their watchers; and, finally, unveil the new mechanics of power/knowledge that emerge.

About the author: Georgios Glouftsios works as a Postdoctoral and Teaching Fellow at the School of International Studies, University of Trento, Italy. His research is situated at the intersections of Critical Security Studies, Border Studies, and Science and Technology Studies.