ENCOUNTERISM: The Neglected Joys of Being in Person, by Andy Field

It has been shockingly easy, hasn’t it, to fall out of the habit of being with other humans. All it took was one world-stopping pandemic that demanded we keep our distance from one another, and taught us to use technology to maintain that separation for months on end.

At home with our screens, we have yet to bounce back from that disruption, yet to readopt old habits like commuting to the office or watching movies at the multiplex. If recent trends in bad behavior are any indication, we may also have yet to relearn the skill set of coexistence — like how not to throw hard objects at musicians during their live shows, even if it makes for eye-grabbing video.

Into this precarious state of affairs steps “Encounterism: The Neglected Joys of Being in Person,” an argument by the British artist Andy Field for venturing out among the populace. To him, our most ordinary sidewalk interactions can be imbued with “friction and possibility … anxiety and joy.” These are little pockets of opportunity where compassion might grow.

“What do we lose when we stop inhabiting the streets of our towns and cities?” he asks. “What understanding of the world, and of each other, are we depriving ourselves of as we spend less and less time in proximity to all these strangers and their lives that are so very different from our own?”

In an author’s note, Field says right up front that the idea for “Encounterism” came before the coronavirus pandemic, not in response to it, and that he wrote much of the book during “the caesura it created.”

That goes some way toward explaining why its chapters — essays, essentially — so often feel trapped in amber, describing realities of another time, as if no paradigms had shifted. It might also explain why the book so frequently relies on research that a person could do from home, though its premise suggests what a limited portal to understanding that can be. (Granted, I am a journalist, and I cover theater. I believe in showing up.)

Field’s most vivid, potent writing channels the sensations of physical immersion in activities he clearly cherishes — like dancing in clubs, which he believes nurtures empathy among strangers finding a collective rhythm in the dark, or sitting in a crowded movie theater, navigating a shared experience with a laughing, shushing, crying, shrieking audience: “We hold each other tightly until the moment the lights come up, and then we all go our separate ways.”

But Field’s opening chapter — an intended homage to the tactile care that hairdressers provide, and a nod to its absence when salons were closed — reads like a performance of appreciation rather than the genuine article. And a chapter on shared meals strains to convey the significance of everyday dinners, unmindful of the sacred longing that those simple social rituals took on early in the pandemic, when people could not eat together.

This is the dissonance that trails us through the book, nagging all the way. Field makes theater and performance art, and he tells some entertaining stories about his offbeat career. (One involves a stranger, whom he was attempting to feed as part of an experimental piece, biting him hard enough to leave a bruise.) But he barely mentions what it meant for his creative work — so dependent on up-close, in-person presence, and often involving travel — to go remote.

It isn’t that the memories don’t belong; it’s that the changes do, too, as do the insights that they brought. The best part of Field’s chapter on city parks is about the community he has found in the London green space where he walks his dog, and how vital that place became to him in 2020 and 2021, when people were often forbidden to meet inside.

Even so, Field never truly gets at the fundamental, tangible value of being present, bodily, with our fellow human beings. Not until the lovely final chapter, on the pleasure of hand-holding, does he very briefly mention one of the most excruciating privations of the early pandemic: the inability of people to be with their loved ones, holding hands at a deathbed.

But the book doesn’t plumb the desperation so many felt for in-person contact: to hug and touch one another; to sniff a new baby’s head; to gauge someone’s well-being in 360 degrees and three dimensions, unconstricted by the frame of a video screen.

We have those multisensory joys back — yet whole in-person art forms (hello, theater) are mired in financial crisis because the audiences that have returned are just too small. Such a fragile moment cries out for a ferociously persuasive argument for engaging with the world in person, not through our screens.

The epigraph of “Encounterism,” a quotation from the French novelist and essayist Georges Perec, is about questioning “the habitual.” But our habits are not what they were only a handful of years ago. Far better to register what’s habitual now and examine that.

Laura Collins-Hughes, a freelance journalist, writes about theater for The Times.

ENCOUNTERISM: The Neglected Joys of Being in Person | By Andy Field | 288 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | Paperback, $17.95


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