Conference Panel 1 "COVID-19 beyond Borders"

Monika Ankele and Céline Kaiser; and Kathleen Rice

Tuesday, 6 July 2021 1:00 pm CEST

Monika Ankele (Medical University Vienna) and Céline Kaiser (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Ottersberg)

"Transparent boundaries. Material and performative aspects of dynamic boundary control in the context of the COVID19 pandemic"


Monika Ankele / Céline Kaiser


One of the challenges of the corona pandemic since spring 2020 is to enable people to stay in touch with each other without being in the same room. In particular, the air we breathe, which we usually share, must be kept separate, since it is this air, as a medium of transmission, that carries aerosols which are invisible to us but contain the dangerous virus. This is why in recent months new forms of demarcations have found their way into our everyday world, which had to be introduced and physically tested both materially and performatively.

Besides window glass, plexiglass is the material of the hour. Supermarkets, hotel receptions, taxis, restaurants and doctors' surgeries as well as clinics are equipped with plexiglass panes of all shapes and sizes. In contrast to walls, the transparency of the glass blends into the corresponding rooms without attracting much attention, offering a view at the person opposite and allowing to listen to him or her without exchanging the air one breathes. In times where "physical distancing" is required, material structures become important social actors, which bring about new forms of encounter and togetherness. Thus, in addition to the rigid drawing of boundaries by means of window panes and plexiglass, movable variants have also been developed. They allow not only the eye but the whole body a contact that respects the required boundary: So-called "hug" or "cuddle curtains", made of transparent plastic foil and equipped with inserts for the arms, enable people to encounter each other, where direct contact would come close to a dangerous border crossing. For our contribution, we want to take these observations as a starting point to examine in more detail the use of plastic and plexiglass as materials that are on the one hand body related and flexible and on the other hand repellent and in this sense protective. Our contribution thus reflects a material boundary which, in the context of the pandemic, in many areas was (and still is) often the only way to maintain social life, enable encounters, provide closeness. We will question this boundary in its characteristics: to separate in order to bring together, putting a special emphasis on its sensual qualities that led to a new choreography of everyday life in times of the pandemic. 


Monika Ankele is a historian. From 2012 to 2020 she was a scientific researcher at the Institute for History and Ethics of Medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and curator at the Medical History Museum. Since November 2020 she is a postdoc researcher at the organizational unit "Collections, Ethics and History of Medicine" (Josephinum) at the Medical University Vienna. Her research focuses on the history of psychiatry and its institutional cultures. Her last research project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and addressed the material culture of psychiatry, putting a special emphasis on the hospital bed and the bath tub. She recently published a book together with Benoît Majerus titled Material Cultures of Psychiatry. Together with Céline Kaiser she has developed a project on "Loneliness during the Corona Crisis" that is currently being reviewed by the Volkswagen Foundation. She is a founding member of the "International Association for Medical & Health Humanities and Artistic Research".

Céline Kaiser is professor of media cultural studies and scenic research at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Ottersberg (Germany). As a Dilthey Fellow of the Volkswagen Foundation, she has researched the cultural history of scenic forms of therapy since the 18th century. Her current focus of work is on medical humanities and artistic research, history, theory, and aesthetics of applied theater as of writing and reading. She recently published a monograph titled "Szenen des Subjekts: Eine Kulturmediengeschichte szenischer Therapieformen seit dem 18. Jahrhundert". She co-edited with Monika Ankele and Sophie Ledebur the book Aufführen, Aufzeichnen, Anordnen: Wissenspraktiken in Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie. Together with Monika Ankele she has developed a project on "Loneliness during the Corona Crisis" that is currently being reviewed by the Volkswagen Foundation. She is a founding member of the "International Association for Medical & Health Humanities and Artistic Research"

Kathleen Rice (McGill University)

"'And nobody would hold him': The Implications of COVID-related Barriers to Touching Newborns for Identity, Personhood and Subject Formation"


Kathleen Rice


This paper draws on over 70 interviews with Canadian mothers who have given birth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and whose babies have thus been born in a time and place where sharp boundaries have been drawn to limit physical contact between members of different households. Specifically, this paper explores the implications of sadness expressed by many of these mothers over the fact that their babies have not been touched and held by close friends, family, and medical personnel. In analysing mothers' narratives about this absence of loving touch, I bring Western philosophical and social theory that positions the sense of touch as an integral element of embodied consciousness into conversation with anthropological theories of personhood as social constituted. While relational personhood is often framed in juxtaposition to the autonomous Western individual, mothers' narratives demonstrate the importance of intersubjective touch for personhood and subject formation even in Western context. Indeed, analysing mothers' narratives about touch exposes personhood as grounded in sensory experience that is felt individually but becomes meaningful intersubjectively. In short, mothers' narratives show that having their babies receive touch from others (specifically close friends, relatives, and caregivers such as nurses, doctors, and lactation consultants) is important to mothers both for the maintenance and consolidation of their own identities as friends, daughters, and mothers, and also for the formation of the kinds of persons that they hope their babies will become. Thinking about shared sensory experience in this way – as important for the formation and maintenance of identity and personhood – has broader implications for understanding how the social and physical barriers that the pandemic necessitates relate to insecurity, loneliness, and poor mental health.


Kathleen Rice is a medical anthropologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University, where she holds the Canada Research Chair in the Medical Anthropology of Primary Care. Her areas of research expertise include gendered, generational, and interprofessional power in clinical and community settings, rural and remote health, pregnancy and birth, human rights, subjectivity, and personhood, both in South Africa and Canada. Kathleen's current research looks at pregnancy and birth in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular focus on the increased use of interventions.