Communities Digital and Analog

The Center for Disease Control announced yesterday (March 15th) that groups of no more than 50 should be together for extended periods of time.

Effectively making the routine gatherings of family and friends, the weddings and the funerals, the Eros and Thanatos, and everything in between, a matter of consequence.

It is sort of startling, come to think of it: supposedly since the year 2013, for the first time in human history, more people on Earth now live in urban settings than live in rural ones.

We are packed close together, and now we are being asked to stay farther apart.

Our sense of community is what I am speaking about here, and as such, two artistic pieces have come to the forefront and made me question the benefits of community, and what we might possibly miss in the weeks ahead.

I have just started reading Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, and the lamentations of the community the protagonist finds himself in are not subtle. While the clarity of its prose and the poetry of its movement is something I could talk about endlessly, even only being a fifth of the way into the book, the half-man, half-wolf feels just as torn between the society he finds himself in. “For mad men only” the sign reads. Community is looked down upon in the novel as a mass gathering of “Americanized men” who ask “for too little.”

But also, just around the corner, a different sort of community will emerge. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game about building a community on a deserted island. Your avatar experiences the seasons and meets new characters, builds houses, stores, work projects, and develops the island into something habitable and sustainable. You talk to people, give and exchange letters and gifts, wear clothing and show it off to those around you. It is an attempt by video gaming to bring the feeling of community that may have existed in the time of bowling leagues and Leave it to Beaver into the 21st Century.

It arrived at the perfect moment. “This community” they could have advertised, “won’t get the coronavirus.”

But to its downfall, the “wolf” side of Animal Crossing will never show its head. Harry Haller of Steppenwolf wants to be loved as a whole, as both the man and the wolf, and each time he falls in love, he laments that his partners only love and see the man in him. The horror of the wolf, the darker sensibilities and desires, are hidden.

So too, the sterile feeling of Animal Crossing is its biggest weakness. Time moves, but it does not progress. While the happier feelings of the community will never cease, the harsher growing pains will never arrive either. There is no death or divorce.

The greatest disappointment of being cooped up, away from the community we know and inhabit, is the building of bonds as well as the development of conflict. Not having even the option to have an argument is, ironically, the thing I might miss the most.

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