The first line of my NCS paper will (probably) be “Our neighbors are monsters.” Reading some of the work on the Neighbor and the Nebenmensch, I’m feeling keenly aware of the alienness present in even the most unassuming of neighbors. What do we know of them? What secrets do they conceal? Their presence pressures me, reminds me that there are life-worlds to which I am neither a participant nor, sometimes, even an observer.
Just recently there was a fatal shooting in the apartment complex I had lived in for twelve and a half years, and had just left in January. This was chilling and saddening news to my wife and I. At the same time, I’m also reminded of the neighbor many years ago who voluntarily shoveled snow so that I could get my wheelchair down the sidewalk. While most of my reading and research has revolved around what happens in the encounter with the neighbor, specifically when we confront their inhumanness, I’m also intrigued by how the nearness of the neighbor may be reconceptualized. Are my neighbors just the handful of people surrounding me geographically? Or, can the virtual space of the internet draw more people into my neighborhood? If someone sends me a pdf of an article because I mention online that I can’t access it (something that’s happened twice), isn’t that as neighborly as borrowing sugar? Are you (assuming anyone’s reading) my neighbor?
If I’m not careful, though, I may draw everyone who isn’t my wife into the relationship of being my neighbor. For the moment, I’m thinking of my neighbor as being those that are outside of my family and my most intimate friends, but to whom I am in some way answerable – acquaintances, colleagues, those near to me geographically and, dare I say, digitally. While I don’t know a single one of the actual neighbors who live near me, I’ve profited greatly from many connections I’ve made online. In fact, being connected online has been a bit of a salve for the isolation I’ve felt since moving to a new place, and thus leaving all of the neighorhoods I’d circulated in previously.
Reading through the NCS program, I’m rather surprised at how many of the names I know as something other than faceless authors—they’re facebook friends, and fellow twitterers, bloggers, and so on. The program forms its own neighborhood of sorts, and it doesn't have to be a temporary one. Before blogging, the aftermath of conferences occurred in smaller groups or in publication, but now, with so many people blogging and writing about conferences, we're maintaining those neighborhoods, carrying them with us. We're more answerable than ever to each other, even if we sometimes are, in fact, monsters.