The Year of Zoom
T. unpacks the bizarre experience of Zooming past another year!
In March 2020, when my university, like several other universities across the world, had to go from being an institution of face-to-face teaching and learning to an institution of relentless videoconferencing, I remember thinking, lecturing via a video platform can’t be that bad. I can wear a full face of makeup, not bother about ill-fitting dress pants, and focus on what’s essential: communicating through and about stories. As someone teaching writing and literature, I did not lose sleep like my colleagues in some other disciplines. I don’t need wet labs. As a millennial who has used Skype and FaceTime for many years to keep in touch with her family in another continent, I did not mind the challenge of simulating hands-on activities and in-class discussions for an online environment.
Indeed, videoconferencing seemed like communication stripped of useless trappings, such as the uncomfortable desks and overheated or freezing classrooms, walking around in stiff shoes that cause blisters, anxiety about making it to class on time after struggling to find parking, and so on. Those were the days of innocence, when we still joked around, saying things like how did Skype lose this round so bad to Zoom.
JLBarrow @JLBarrowWow, this bit on @Skype is too accurate lol #PatriotAct https://t.co/PpQoVOK56B
So, optimistic about the possibilities of videoconferencing, I invested in a tinted hydrating moisturizer to cover my face during Zoom meetings and a lip mask to nourish my lips while I logged off the platform. (Stores around me were out of hand sanitizers and toilet papers at the time, fyi). That my first purchases during a raging pandemic were skincare products and cosmetics were not alarming–not to me.
I have always been moderately conscious of my appearance. I enjoy dressing up and styling. I have been shamed for these but know better. Moral purity tends to be associated with appearing as though you don’t care about appearances in societies that are actually obsessed with appearances–like, the moment I see friends or family in India, they comment on whether I’ve grown thin, fat, bright, dark, fair, since the last time they saw me. Slender is good, chubby is bad. Bright and fair–good. Dark–bad. But if you are thin because you work out or watch what you eat, then it’s a problem. It has to come effortlessly, like a dream.
Or a nightmare.
On the surface, my initial Zoom prep did not signal any fundamental change in my buying habits. In the weeks that followed, along with constantly tweaking course syllabi to adapt to evolving student needs, I realized I needed more natural and neutral toned lipsticks. Brighter colors on the lips drew too much attention.
Whose attention? That’s a tricky question.
Today the answer seems obvious. The attention I was both seeking and eluding through choices in lip color were mine, and perhaps, mine alone.
The disparity between what I assumed my face looked like when I spoke or taught and the ‘real’ version staring at me as I lectured on Zoom began to, gradually, overwhelm me. I focused on smiling with shut lips because I did not want to see a protruding canine on the left. More than one dentist in the US previously encouraged me to see orthodontists to fix the canine for cosmetic purposes–my standard position has been, I won’t fix it unless it becomes necessary for health reasons. Now, facing myself on Zoom, I wondered whether I should have listened to the dentists.
The experience reminded me of my screen test for a news anchor job with a Bengali broadcasting channel from several years ago. I disliked my own appearance on tape just enough to not respond to the channel’s call back after the audition. When a friend asked me what was so wrong with my appearance on screen, I had said, ‘in videos I look like I have too much teeth.’
As the months went by, more and more of my students started leaving their cameras off. Their reasons were: privacy, lack of access to decent cameras, and discomfort with being on camera. In class sessions that ranged anywhere between an hour to three hours (yes, I taught three-hour seminars via Zoom for three semesters straight) I often had nothing but my own face to see.
Nothing could be more grueling.
Turns out I was not the only one who was exhausted by Zoom. By spring 2021, a year into the pandemic, there were a slew of articles and opinion pieces on why Zoom tired us. ‘Zoom fatigue’ earned the great distinction of having a Wikipedia page devoted to it.
One cause of collective exhaustion was the unpredictability of the technology coupled with human fallibility, the stuff of #zoomfails. Audio and video cut out in the middle of important conversations, we forgot to turn on the mic, forgot to turn off our cameras. Or our partners and roommates did their thing, notwithstanding the camera and the mic–like the wife who tried to kiss her husband while he was discussing GDP for a news channel or the doctor who received a dressing-down from his wife on live TV for getting vaccinated without her. The other cause of fatigue was our ‘mirror anxiety.’ The self-view mirror and the ability to ‘touch up’ our appearance (essentially adding a filter) on Zoom were doing us no favors.
A study co-authored by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Gothenburg, published in April 2021, showed that women experienced higher levels of Zoom fatigue than men. No surprises there. The key cause was self-focused attention, triggered by Zoom’s self-view mirror. In short, ‘mirror anxiety’--that is, the heightened awareness of how one comes across during an interaction or a conversation, similar to how one feels in front of a mirror. Other factors considered in the study for contributing to Zoom fatigue included “being physically trapped, hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces, and the cognitive load from producing and interpreting nonverbal cues.”
After the first wave of lockdown, the first wave of Zoom, there was reportedly a rise in facial plastic surgeries in the US. A surge in body dysmorphic disorder. I listened to a podcast that suggested this was not always because people wanted to alter how they looked on Zoom, but also because, in some instances, they wanted to look in real life like they did on Zoom after the camera had touched up their appearances.
On the surface, there is a solution to these problems. Just turn off the camera. In my profession, at a pedagogical level, this solution does not seem like a good idea–I feel like my students’ sense of access to me is in part guided by their ability to see me, picture me, and understand my body language (whatever little of it fits in the Zoom frame). Ok, you say, if not the camera, then turn off the self-view function. Zoom does seem to allow this under specific conditions but I have to admit I crave, I suppose in a masochistic way, the illusion of control over my appearance that the self-view function affords. I cannot help looking while passing by a mirror.
So, for hours on end, I am now talking to my own face.
In my three-hour class on Zoom, I teach “Ethics and the Face,” a part of Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality and Infinity (1961), which says:
In as much as the access to beings concerns vision, it dominates those beings, exercises power over them. A thing is given, offers itself to me. In gaining access to it I maintain myself within the same.
The face is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen or touched–for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content.
Levinas was a prisoner of war during World War II. His relations were murdered during the Holocaust. So, his thinking about faces, the relationship of the self with the other, what distinguishes or does not distinguish ‘I’ from ‘you’ arises out of a specific historical crisis. His thinking also takes as its basis traditional forms of interactions, that is, face-to-face communication.
Imagine, now, the thing being offered to you during a conversation is not the interlocutor’s face, which could be an enigma in its own right, but your own. In gaining access to that face, which is also your own face, can you still maintain or contain your sense of self? If the presence of alterity–with some commonality–is a necessary condition for being a self, then how can I be when facing nobody but my face?
These questions conventionally fall into the lap of performers. Film and television actors are routinely asked if they can watch or enjoy watching themselves on screen. Manoj Bajpayee says he finds the experience “awkward.” Adam Driver famously walked out of an interview when he was forced to endure his own performance–he seems to have an explanation for it. And while I won’t hazard saying I know Adam Driver’s or Manoj Bajpayee’s minds, I would speculate that actors’ discomfort watching themselves may have less to do with the fear of finding flaws in their impersonation of an Other (a character), and more to do with the fear of loss–the loss of the self in role play. Gender further complicates matters. Women actors can be caught in a double bind, being especially vulnerable to harsh comments on their looks. Thus, for a woman, watching herself outside role play can be nerve-wracking as well, as Gina Rodriguez admits while captioning an Instagram video in which she appears without make-up and styling.
Teaching like many other ‘public’ facing jobs has a performance aspect to it. In the college I attended for my undergrad in Calcutta, professors lectured from raised platforms, their stage. My first memory of college is entering a class in which the professor was pacing up and down the raised platform reciting lines from Macbeth. When I signed up to be a professor, I imagined performing in a small theater. I, a desi woman in her late twenties then, would be playing a role that people–students–habitually associate with old (often, white in the US) men. When the theatricality combines with a live audio-visual feedback monitor, it is like watching yourself act while acting. You wonder if you belong in the frame. What are the chances you were miscast? It becomes impossible to fully commit to the moment.
The title sequence of Navarasa, a Tamil-language film anthology on Netflix, is an authentic interpretation of what communication feels like on Zoom.
Navarasa was shot by veteran directors and actors to generate funds for workers in the Tamil film industry adversely affected by the pandemic. Each segment of the anthology is a short film associated with one of the nine rasas or moods discussed in Indian aesthetic theory by Bharata Muni, Abhinavagupta, and others. The films in the Navarasa anthology are not particularly striking. For instance, the science fiction film–Project Agni, associated with the state of ‘wonder’–unfolds as a conversation on time travel, free will, and the origins of the universe. If the speculative theories dropped in Project Agni were more water-tight, I would pardon the rambling monologues the ‘genius’ scientist who works from home (played by Arvind Swami) delivers to a scientist (played by Prasanna) from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The ISRO scientist reminds us at least three times in the first five minutes of his appearance that he is busy because he works at ISRO. That’s the level of sloppy writing we are talking about here! That Swami’s character is called Vishnu and Prasanna’s Krish, while there’s a Kalki somewhere in the narrative mix, does not elevate the material. Names of Hindu Gods and tangential references to Hindu mythology do not add layers of meaning. If anything, the film inadvertently showcases the misjudgements we make while working in isolation. WFH isn’t for everyone.
The title sequence designed by Bharatbala, set to A R Rahman’s music though, stands out. Each monochrome frame in the sequence features a close up shot of an actor emoting in absence of a context. Faces have been ripped out of stories, specific moments, to showcase a range of emotions. However, emotions, fleeting as they are, and even when expressed by actors in fictional contexts, are effective only when anchored to environments. Emotions are figures produced on the grounds of experience. By stripping faces off contexts, the credit sequence says, marvel at what these faces can do. These are great actors, the sequence says, and I agree. The sequence induces awe, perhaps, but no other feeling as faces appear and vanish to the rhythms of Rahman’s composition. Combined with a violin interlude, percussion and background vocals give the theme music a monumental quality, further underlining the sense of awe. And though films in the Navarasa anthology are not explicitly about the pandemic, the title sequence channels the hyper focus on the surface of the face, known to us through hours on Zoom, in opposition to a focus on what the face is truly saying.
And then, there’s the Other side of it, so to speak, in this late-age of Zoom, when more and more people keep their cameras off. Facing someone is forming a relation, whether wanted or an unwanted one. Social networking sites and applications pick up on this, calling themselves Facebook, FaceTime, and so on. Trolls, too, intuitively know this, which is why they use anonymity and facelessness as ammunition. So, while leaving the camera off during meetings and classes may be helpful in many respects, we cannot deny that by refusing someone our face in a conversation we also end up refusing them the possibility of a relationship.
Now, I do not think that the need for intimacy or relation should automatically supersede one’s need for privacy–one condition is not ethically superior to the other in my opinion. However, I wonder if communication has not always meant giving up a bit of one’s privacy. Will the years of videoconferencing end up transforming the basic idea of communication then? Is this how things will turn out: We will want to see without showing ourselves. We will want to learn without asking questions. We will become passive consumers of each other’s lives without letting each other know. Wait, we are already at it. Social media were changing our ideas of privacy and intimacy for a while, transforming “friends” into “followers,” even before Zoom entered the scene.
Beside buying makeup, I bought a lot of books during the pandemic. This, too, was not an epic shift in my buying habits. I had book shelves in my study room before they became everyone’s go-to Zoom background.
Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, a novel I bought and read, is not a story about the pandemic, but spoke to me in a specific way because of the pandemic. The narrator of Intimacies is an interpreter at the International Court in Hague. She is a migrant, and not quite at home in her present circumstances. Kitamura’s writing masterfully shows the lengths to which we can go to focus our attention on others, make sense of other faces, in both personal and professional settings to avoid facing ourselves.
Kitamura’s narrator is not as self-effacing as say Jenny Offill’s narrator in Weather or as voluble about worldly crises as the narrator of Olivia Laing’s Crudo but stands somewhere in the middle She is utterly ordinary. But this ordinary narrator has some out-of-the-ordinary experiences and obsessions, something just a bit off-center about her at times. And maybe this is all of us too. So, I follow her as she reads faces and gestures exhaustively.
I love, for instance, the description the narrator offers of her encounter with an accused in the Detention Center. She first sees the man’s photograph and thinks, “He did not look the way I expected, his face did not live up to the magnitude of the crimes I had read about in the dossier. It was not that he looked innocent or guilty, it was more that his face was utterly without depth.” The narrator’s boyfriend Adriaan meets her friend Jana for a dinner to which the narrator arrives late, and the narrator notices Jana has “put on lipstick and eye makeup, which she did not usually bother to do,” but then decides that Jana’s “transformation” was not only physical, but also marked an “intangible shift” resulting from the “intimacy” Jana established with Adriaan. Throughout the scene, Adriaan “looks,” “gazes,” and Jana acts both in and “out of character.” I can picture Jana’s and Adriaan’s faces. But the narrator refuses to draw her face for me.
It is an intimacy of a withholding or halting sort that the narrator offers. This sort of intimacy feels increasingly familiar as my students carry on videoconferencing with cameras turned off. I, too, turn off my camera during meetings nowadays. Nobody is above hiding.
Looking forward to 2022, I wish I could say I don’t see my face mirrored on Zoom, but videoconferences are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Second year into the pandemic, writing with a booster-shot induced throbbing headache, the question that raises its head is not simply whether I will eventually make my peace with the self-conscious performance that is talking at my own face, but how this continued performance will transform the substance that constitutes faces in the long term: our lives.
Postscript from P
Strike a Pose: Some Good Zoom Bits this Year
It was during a recent year-end party that I realised how people-watching, people talking about people, never gets old. Even two years of a pandemic and losing loved ones haven’t changed schadenfreude and our insatiable ability and need for/to gossip about those we know, and those we don’t.
Discussion, critique, even bitching and judging, are methods of human connection after all. How else would ‘haters gonna hate’ be such a strong proclamation?
So if we all do it, what was so different about the way her peers treated her, I was thinking. Shweta, whose private phone conversation was overheard by her entire class during a virtual learning session, since she forgot to mute herself before picking up the call. Is it the fact that snippets of it were shared online? That she became a viral meme overnight?
What about letting go of employees over email - SOP pre-Covid - as opposed to a Zoom call - in the manner of the better.com CEO? Where do we draw the remote working boundaries?
How can we carve out what’s real, where feelings live, and what’s not? Is there even a space like that anymore, living as we do offline-online in a continuum of sorts? And how come we all get to judge?
Are the discomforts of Zoom and the online world steeped then in how the internet never forgets, as opposed to the human brain? Are they mired in arguments around our recent favorite word ‘consent’? Is that what makes it - another recent favourite word - ‘problematic’? But if I had a penny, as they say, for every time something about me was shared with a stranger, even an ill-intentioned one, without my permission - circa pre social media era…
Setting these questions aside, and in the spirit of gratitude as 2021 closes, I want to make note of a special ritual that emerged this year for me, and one which could only have come out of the Zooming, the video calls, and facing the faces - mine and others’.
My mum came up with the idea of sharing lockdown selfies on the family group just as we started our days. What sounded clearly exhausting if not exasperating as an idea at first, ended up becoming the stuff of daily routine I began to look forward to. With my parents, my brother, and I living in different states of India - and borders have never seemed as hard as they have through the last 2 years - this became a way of keeping in touch. We dressed up at times, smiled, wrote cheeky hellos, tried different ‘strike a poses’ at times, and waited to see the other’s face doing the same - while our backgrounds remained unchanged and second waves ravaged all around us.
Somewhere through 2021, upping the game, cases at an all-time low, we pivoted to colour-coding outfits with days. I started writing captions - ‘Lal Mangalvaar aur Parivaar aka Monday Motivation’, ‘Gulabi Shukravaar Ho Mazedaar aka TGIF’. It became fodder for comments, concern, sharing, feedback, gestures of love and appreciation, comic relief, bonding.
And it all started with staring at a camera, at my own face.
Cheers to less, or do I mean more?, of ‘preparing faces to meet the faces that you meet’ in a new year of the pandemic in 2022, as we continue staying Outspoken-ish!
Safed Somvaar & Peela Guruvaar, 2021
Best of 2021, from T & P
T’s book of literary criticism, Out of Mind, came out in 2021.
P wrote a long read for Article 14 on the devastating second wave and its complex nuances in rural northern India, Death, Disbelief & an Odd Resistance in UP’s Rural Hinterland
Good Deity, T’s short story about WhatsApp, spirituality, and cockfighting, set in rural Bengal, was published in Necessary Fiction.
In There is Something about Parveen, P explored fame, mental health, and culture via a 2020 Parveen Babi biography, for Himal SouthAsian.
T interviewed Meena Kandasamy for Asymptote.