It was last month, during a sitting in the British Parliament. Covid requires, the benches were almost deserted, parliamentarians speaking from a distance. The turn of a curator, Jonathan Gullis, but the chairperson, who was going to give him the floor, changed her mind. Seeing on the screen appear her colleague in a simple blue sweater, she passed the floor to someone else, indicating that we would return to “The honorable gentleman” when he would be dressed for the circumstances. Jonathan Gullis having put on a jacket and a tie, he was able to contribute to the debate a moment later, and briefly apologized. Shortly after this hushed incident, the president insisted on the BBC microphone: “It’s not a question of fashion or etiquette, it’s a question of respect. “
I had just participated myself in a webinar (online seminar) around a philosopher whose name I will understand. As I was going for a walk the next day with a couple of friends who they told me would attend the same conference, I looked forward to a promising discussion. But quickly, I got bored. On the screen, the hero of the evening spoke to us under the wan light of his desk lamp, with that slightly sidelong glance that we always have in these circumstances. He wore on his face, in his hairstyle, by the slight disorder of the books and papers on his table, the marks of a surely studious and visibly tiring day … We were far from these great lessons given by the scholars of his renown, which ‘we rush to hear when we have the chance. Admittedly, the codes are not at the university the same as at the House of Commons, but the silhouette of these intellectuals has its majesty when they teach in one of these temples of knowledge of which our country counts so many examples, since so many centuries. The close-up that inevitably goes with the retransmission of a course from home does not stimulate reflection, it clutters it, as if it needed space, even virtual, to mobilize.
The ceremonial, from the most pompous to the most relaxed, puts us in a position to participate in very different moments of life, for which the decor and the clothing send various signals. What surprised me is that the exercise of intelligence, requested in this case to understand what a philosopher says, is also subject to this conditioning. It reminded me of an anecdote told at the start of the health crisis by a friend, a lecturer in sociology. Giving her classes remotely because of the pandemic, she must have reminded some students that, no, they couldn’t attend in their pajamas, with their coffee mugs in their hands. It seemed to me an obvious politeness question, but I hadn’t thought that it also helped to make oneself permeable to complex teachings.
And that’s not all. In a scene from the novel The inner ghetto (1), the narrator dines in a pizzeria with his wife and two daughters. Naturally he stains himself with tomato sauce, and his wife has this classic remark: “What an idea to dress so chic to go eat pizza.” “ He then defends himself, adding: “It’s also a mark of courtesy for all the people we meet and don’t know. It’s good to show them that we have made an effort, an effort intended for them. “
All these people that we meet and do not know are quickly forgotten when we do not share the same real space. They are the ones that the session chairperson brought to Jonathan Gullis’ attention, basically suggesting that, by correcting his outfit, he symbolically display their existence. Without these strangers, in fact, what meaning do the words of an elected official have? And what meaning would life have?