I have been thinking about ideas of relation and connection for several years now. I mentioned them together first back in May of 2008 in a post called “An Addendum of Sorts” and then again in a post called “Social Holocaust?“, and these ideas have been percolating in my mind ever since, so much so that I thought I would take some time to look at what the words have meant in our language historically as a way to start making sense of what they could mean for us today.
The word ‘connect’ in the sense of ‘joining together’ has been in use in the English language since the middle of the 15th century, and it has been employed in the sense of ‘establishing a relationship” since at least 1881. With the introduction of telephone connections, it has also been used since 1926 in the sense of “getting in touch”, and this sense has grown to include ‘awakening emotions’ or ‘establishing a rapport’ since the early 1940’s. In contemporary usage, it has become used increasingly in both technical and interpersonal ways. In a technical sense it is now used to describe virtually every contact between electronic devices, so that we now routinely speak of internet connections and cell phone connections and wireless connections and network connections. In an interpersonal sense, we also now refer to our relationships increasingly in terms of connection and connectivity, especially as our electronic connections begin to dominate our interpersonal interactions, so that we now keep connected to our friends through our various devices and applications and speak of these relationships in terms of connections also.
The word ‘relate’, by comparison, comes into English usage a little later, sometime around 1530, and it is first used in the sense of ‘recounting’ or ‘telling’. It does not come to mean ‘establishing a relationship’ until 1771, and it is only around 1950 that it comes to mean ‘feeling sympathy or connection’. Whereas the word ‘connect’ originates in the act of joining together, especially in a technical sense, the word ‘relate’ originates in the act of telling. It comes to describe interpersonal relationships, not in terms of mere contact, but in terms of telling and recounting stories to one another. We relate our stories, and we thereby come into relation.
Considering the differences in connotations between these two words, I think that our culture’s increasing preference for the word ‘connection’ over the word ‘relation’ is perhaps symptomatic of how our devices and applications are coming to mediate our relationships. Because these technologies have changed how we interact, we have taken on new ways of speaking about our interactions. It no longer makes as much sense to speak of having a relationship with someone, because the nature of our interaction is no longer that of relation, no longer that of sharing our stories with one another. Instead, it makes more sense to speak of our interpersonal interactions with the same terminology that we use to speak of the technology that now enables and produces these interactions, to speak of connectivity rather than relation, to speak in terms of being put in contact or being joined together.
As I was thinking about the implications of this cultural and linguistic shift, it occurred to me that I might also make a similar etymological study of another word that has been significant to me with respect to how we are relate ethically to one another, the word ‘encounter’. It appears in the English language much earlier than either ‘relate’ or ‘connect’, being used as early as the late 13th century. Its initial meaning was ‘the meeting of adversaries,’ but by the 16th century it had already weakened to mean ‘a casual or chance meeting’. This is one of those instances, I think, where the ancient sense of the term bears a much profounder meaning than the contemporary one, an instance where the continuing resonance of the ancient sense is what makes the word so powerful even in its contemporary usage, especially when it is used in an ethical sense.
It is after all a pair of enemies who encounter one another in the quintessential story of ethical relation, The Good Samaritan. The Samaritans and the Jews were cultural and religious enemies, refusing either to socialize or to worship together, and this enmity is the element of the story that makes the Samaritan’s actions so remarkable. In a standard interpretation of the story, the Samaritan rather than the Priest or the Levite is the one who acts as a neighbour, is the one who acts ethically, because he shows compassion to the man who had been robbed even though he was a cultural and religious enemy of his people. I have myself characterized this moment as the moment of ethical encounter in much these same terms, but I wonder, considering the ancient meaning of the word ‘encounter’, whether this is a moment of ethical encounter needs to be understood a little differently.
Perhaps it is only because the one I encounter on the road is other to me, because this one is not of my faith or my race or my gender or my politics or my social status or my pay grade or my whatever, perhaps it is only because this one on the road is other to me, not just different from me but other from me in a way that is a threat and a concern to what I am, perhaps it is only because of this otherness, this enmity, that I can truly encounter the other at all. Perhaps it is not an ethical encounter even though the one on the road is the other. Perhaps it is an ethical encounter precisely because the one on the road is the other, must always be the other, no matter how much he or she may appear to be like me.
This otherness, this enmity, this hostility, may in fact be what is essential to ethical relation, may in fact constitute ethical encounter as such. I am reminded here of Derrida’s idea of hostipality, in which hostility and hospitality are both necessarily present in the gesture of the host, and it seems to me that the ethical encounter functions in much the same way. It is the decision to treat the other as myself, precisely because the other is not myself. It is the decision to love the other, precisely because this other is what I do not love. It is the decision to befriend the other, precisely because the other is my enemy. It is the moment comprised, necessarily, of both enmity and amity. The moral of the story is not that everyone is my neighbour and so I must be a neighbour to them. The moral is that no one is my neighbour, that everyone is my other, that everyone is my enemy, and that I must be a neighbour to them anyway, because there is no other way to be a neighbour.
All this has brought me a fair distance from where I began, but not without value, at least for me, because if it is true that in our culture we now speak more of connection than of relation, and if we have always spoken more of connection and relation than of encounter, the origins of these words should warn us that perhaps our language is betraying a shift away from relationships based on the sharing of our stories toward connections based on little more than mere contact, and that even this shift does not account for a deeper and more worrying refusal to understand how we relate ethically to each other, how the other always encounters us an enemy, how this otherness may even be a precondition for us to act ethically in the world.