We, without doubt, lay ourselves in “places,” which, if we heed the specialty of things therein or the history therewith, appear to us as having a variety of meanings. In this serial article, we aim to contemplate various “places” found in Todai’s campuses with the cultural geographer Dr.James Thurgill, who interprets “places” by employing a knowledge of the humanities that spans philosophy, history, anthropology, and so on. Our seventh meeting is at online classes.
(Interviewed, Written and Translated by Mon Madomitsu)
Do Online Classes lack of “place”?
The ‘places’ that have featured in our serial article over the last twelve months have all been physical sites. Now, given the current situation in which all UTokyo campuses have been closed in an effort to prevent the spread of infection, the only access to UTkyo that remains available to us is through online classes. However, can an online class be considered a ‘place that is a target of cultural geography?
“Much work has been done by cultural geographers to examine the role of ‘place’ in the virtual world,” says Dr. Thurgill. According to cultural geographers, a ‘place’ is a site in which human beings fix ‘meaning’ through the connections they make there. “‘Meaning’ comes from what a ‘place’ evokes in us, such as emotional responses and memories.”
As such, an online class can be called a ‘place’ in so much as we are able to cultivate memories through interaction with teachers and students, and thus find our own meaning there. “A ‘place’ is imagined as if it would exist in real space, but regardless of whether it be real or virtual, the process of place-making is always one that begins in our minds.”
What kind of meaning and experience, then, can we acquire in an online class? Dr. Thurgill unfolds his argument by utilizing a Heideggerian term “veiling” – a process through which the being of a thing is concealed. “In an online class, the participants’ bodies and faces are concealed if the camera is off, and their real names are veiled if their display names are manipulated. Indeed, online classes allow for a type of ‘veiling’ to occur that would not be possible in the physical classroom setting.”
According to Dr. Thurgill, such “veiling” embraces two conflicting meanings. Firstly, the individual’s loss of corporeal presence in online spaces makes the generation of spontaneous interaction among participants difficult. Where we might ordinarily react to expressions, gestures, and see the free flowing of ideas, the anonymity of online presence does not always permit such interaction. Yet at the same time, the veiling of that which shows individuality, such as faces or names, appears to reiterate a sense of unity among students: “There is a sense of unity knowing that everybody, while struggling with the same inconvenient situation, is learning from behind a computer screen. Paradoxically, this necessary ‘absence’ of students in the physical classroom provides them with a shared understanding of each other’s ‘presence’ in the virtual one. That is to say, the now universal experience of being kept apart, ‘hidden away’, so to speak, can also work to bring us closer together.”
“Does our very treatment of these two types of geography as oppositional – real versus virtual – not represent our over-dependence on physical, external environments?” questions Dr. Thurgill. “We have assumed and privileged the physical presence of ‘actors’ in the field of communication, which is to say, the sense that ‘one is actually there’ has been based solely upon being tangibly present. But I think such a ‘hidden’ fundamentality of our everyday thinking is being gradually deconstructed in the practice of online learning. We are moving towards a different understanding of what it means to be ‘present’ in our everyday lives.”
The things that surround us in the physical world, including languages, pictures, music, and even facial expressions, are all types of sign, in so far as they represent certain meanings. According to the French philosopher Jacque Derrida, a sign is what represents the deferred presence of that which it signifies. Things in our everyday physical world seem to be there in front of us, but in reality it is the opposite: those things in front of us are, in many cases, no more than mediations of presence(s), signs that signify meanings – substitutions for the thing itself. For example, that someone is standing right in front of me does not mean that I am immediately apprehending his or her being. The facial expression that represents emotions, the skin color that represents race, the language that conveys speech and transmits meaning – only by mediately going through these various signs can we begin to reach the being of that person.
Hence, it can be concluded that the difference between online and offline classes is not of a great degree. In the online class, we cannot reach the beings of teachers and students other than through a multitude of signs displayed on our laptop screens. Such a structure of mediacy, however, is found in a physical classroom as well. Perhaps we should not stick to the dichotomy of real versus virtual anymore.
In Part 1 of the article we have considered the online class from a perspective that focuses on ‘signs’. However, there is another aspect that is yet to be considered; namely, how does the lack of physical sensation, which is often assumed to be a characteristic of the online world, affect our way of spatial perception? This question shall be explored in Part 2.