Keeping physically at a distance or, in contemporary English, social distancing, is not just a phenomenon of the present day. What it means to respect the correct distance, customs and politeness when interacting with others is something that has become rooted in different social and cultural practices over millennia. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it perfectly 170 years ago when he described the dilemma of the human as a social being in an image of freezing porcupines that seek closeness but keep a distance. While preventing infection and stopping the spread of disease may have become particularly strongly established in cultural memory, government-ordered distance also involves mysteries and the retention of power as well as public health, as the current “Don’t Touch Me!” exhibition at the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library) shows.
It comes as little surprise that such practices are so frequently accompanied by conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, they also have the potential to produce new ideas. According to one hypothesis, these practices firstly “create new formats and instruments of communication that experience surprising acceptance; secondly, the void created by radical social abstinence makes space for a new awareness of ethical and moral priorities”. The showcase ranges from the noli me tangere verse of the gospel to ceremonies as well as botany and plants such as the impatiens noli-tangere or mimosa pudica, both referred to more colloquially in English by the distinct name “touch-me-not”.