Perhaps you’ve heard of the porcupine’s dilemma. It’s an allegory dreamed up by Arthur Schopenhauer, nineteenth-century German philosopher, that elegantly illustrates the problems posed by the necessity of interpersonal intimacy. Imagine a cluster of porcupines huddling together for warmth on a cold winter’s day. The heat from the bodies of the other porcupines are keeping each one alive, so they bunch closer and closer together as the temperature drops. There’s just one problem—they’re all covered in quills. The more compact the huddle, the more they prick one another, forcing the porcupines to maintain a safe distance, maximizing mutual warmth while minimizing mutual pain.
Though it leaps from discipline to discipline, one consistency throughout Miranda July’s work is its tendency to mine this tension between vulnerability and self-preservation. July is perhaps best known for her 2009 Caméra d’Or-winning film Me and You and Everyone We Know, but this multifaceted filmmaker, writer, and performance artist has also produced interactive art objects and installations, written a book about people she’s met through the classifieds, and created an app that recruits strangers to deliver personal text messages on behalf of the sender. No matter the project, July’s work tends to focus on the quiet messiness that characterizes human lives—something vastly underappreciated in a world that values glamor, perfection, and efficiency. Whether it’s a sculpture that compels strangers to stand on a pedestal and hug, as with Eleven Heavy Things, or a short story that inserts a naive first-person narrator into a sex scene (often of the non-normative variety), one thing audiences can expect from July is an awkward scenario. Her latest performance piece, New Society, capitalizes on this very thing. Because it relies so heavily on audience participation, the piece is different every time it is presented, but can be summed up in one of two ways: 1) It’s two hours with a room full of strangers, 2) It’s, as the Boston Globe puts it, “an exercise in accidental community.” The latter is well phrased, but the former, for July’s work, rings more true. Many “relational” artists fabricate situations for encounter that, in an attempt to “repair the social bond,” as Nicolas Bourriaud might put it, gloss over the distress audiences experience when thrown together with people they don’t know. July, however, goes right to the source of discomfort, sticks a finger in, and probes the wound.
The virtue of the awkward moment is that it inevitably produces mutual vulnerability. It opens each party up by traumatically disrupting the rhythm of scripted social behaviors. Cultural theorists such as Sarah Ahmed have written extensively about how emotional states can actually be thought of as the residue of interpersonal contact, shaping the boundaries between “I,” “We,” and “Other” by making those boundaries apparent. Consider the porcupines: The experience of bodily pain makes the critter in question aware of its cutaneous borders and allows it to mediate between inside and outside by, say, recoiling from its neighbor’s quill. Similarly, discomfort with strangers comes from the temporary violation of the boundaries between Self and Other that we routinely and vigilantly police. Inasmuch that a performance creates a space removed from everyday affairs (or, given that many of July’s projects deal with the mundane, we could say that her performances and projects bracket everyday moments, lending them the air of the remarkable), July’s works establish a context in which it is socially permissible for audiences to enter into a vulnerable state and feel its full force—to have their personal boundaries violated in order to feel the warmth of another.
In Schopenhauer’s time, the answer to the paradox of the isolated self versus the peril of vulnerability was found in what he called “politeness and good manners,” or the sense of decorum that regulated social interaction and kept the intensity of intimacy at bay. We, citizens of the 21st century, a newer society, are tasked with finding answers to the porcupine’s dilemma all over again. In the midst of globalization and a digital revolution, the politeness and good manners of yesteryear have given way to a much more ambiguous protocol. We still feel compelled to stave off loneliness in the presence of others, but the cultural mores regulating such interactions are continually in flux, failing to keep apace with the social changes wrought by revolutions in technology and more. “We’re all dealing with a lot more strangers due to the web,” explains July, in an interview with The Rumpus, “When you’re physically interacting with someone, it forces you to be more present and probably a little more uncomfortable… I’m interested in what the virtues of all those things are.”
If you plan to attend Miranda July’s New Society performance at the Walker this week, expect to be called upon to participate. Expect to look a little foolish in front of people you don’t know. Expect to make eye contact. Expect to be present—and probably a little uncomfortable.
Miranda July’s New Society will premiere at the Walker October 30–31, 2014.