2020

Sunlight through trees

When it began to dawn on me that there was an All This unfolding, I started writing again here, trying to make sense of things, and also wanting to make some kind of record. But then I got angry, and then I got depressed, and I didn’t seem to have anything constructive to say, nothing that I would want to look back on as a reminder of what I was thinking about. That was around the time that all the gaps made themselves evident: between different impacts of the pandemic on people, between official guidelines and real life, between ways of living with risk. Summer arrived and everything seemed uncanny, even as more of regular life became accessible again: it felt like when you wake from some momentous dream, inheriting all the sense of enormous import without any knowledge of its root.

I think we had covid then: at any rate, we were very sick, both of us, for a hallucinatory weekend, and then we were fine, except my sense of smell was faintly yet consistently skewed for months. If this was some sort of long covid, I can’t imagine escaping any more lightly, but it felt weird to have such a basic sense just a fraction out. It was like the way that an error of half a degree will put a ship thousands of miles off course, as if something very big had shifted minutely but absolutely.

Despite the anxiety and uncertainty, life for us is good. Our household has been lucky, and we have lots of happy times together. But I am starting to forget things as we adjust and move from coping to adapting. My interest in understanding the pandemic and our response is fading. Isolation means no replenishment, no injection of ideas and energy from outside, and I’m realising I could live with my reduced horizons and the lack of curiosity and ambition that comes with that. I read Yoko Ogawa’s Memory Police recently, about an island where objects steadily disappear (birds, ferry tickets, perfume, roses, boats) and are forgotten by the residents in a kind of intentional collective acceptance: once the notice of a disappearance is received, they hurry to rid the neighbourhood of that object while they can still remember it. It feels easier to accept all the loss rather than remember how things were and how they might be. I hadn’t realised how far along that path I had travelled until we unpacked our Christmas decorations and started wrapping presents, and I was ambushed by sudden moments of perspective.

So before I capitulate and move on, here are some of the things that the last few months have made me think about, and that I am still trying to understand.

Sohail Inayatullah talks about the litany future, the headlines about the future that everyone in a society is familiar with. There is a pandemic litany, a familiar description of how things are now, in England at least: government messaging is confusing, the procurement of PPE is rife with cronyism and profiteering, we’re not all in it together, private firms like Serco and Amazon and Tesco have replaced the public infrastructure that supports communities, arts and culture are going through a devasting (irreversible?) period of change, unemployment and homelessness will rise, inequality in all its forms has risen, being confined has increased suffering and trauma amongst those suffering abuse or dependent on care, leisurewear sales have increased alongside comforting escapist media like Animal Crossing, no-one is going back to the office, vaccines have been developed at an astonishing pace. Nature is not healing after all. There will be a ‘new normal’. There will be no ‘new normal’. The old normal was the problem. We should ‘build back better’. This is the opportunity for social change we need. We have missed the opportunity to make the change we need: instead, other interests have become more entrenched.

All this is part of how I understand the situation, what I fit the day’s news into. But it’s a description of the surface of the pandemic, offering no purchase on the thing itself. I am not trivialising the effects of the pandemic in saying this, or trying to minimise the pain and trauma that it has brought with it. I think in trying to understand more than the surface I am paying my respects to this pain, refusing to be satisfied by the incomplete, ready-to-hand accounts that are available. I haven’t previously been very taken by Timothy Morton’s notion of the ‘hyperobject’, which describes a thing so vast and complex and multidimensional that it can’t be apprehended in its entirety. I thought the idea was gimmicky and hadn’t seen it used well: it’s too easy to point at anything and invoke the ways it goes beyond our apprehension of it (as everything does) by calling it a hyperobject. And it panders to the critic’s sense of themselves as more perceptive than lay people, able to recognise dimensions of reality that pass others by. But it seems useful now, particularly his idea of these objects being ‘viscous’ and inescapable, and how they exceed the categories we usually employ to make sense of the world.

There’s a great interview by Rebecca Onion with Elizabeth Outka in which they discuss the ways in which the 1918 pandemic “haunts” the literature of the time, despite being rarely addressed directly: it’s not ignored, or forgotten, or taboo, just too big for it to be grasped and too pervasive not to have shaped the perception of everything. I think underlying the conversations I have with people and that I hear in shops is a similar awareness that we aren’t grasping what’s happening, that however we try to pin it down is insufficient.

Did I have COVID-19? Foucauld, and Latour, and Mol, might remind us in their different ways that ‘having had a disease’ is a state produced through the interactions of lots of different actors: a virus, perhaps, and our bodies, and also doctors, and laboratories, and other elements of a sociotechnical system capable of ‘diagnosis’, of legitimising our experience scientifically and pronouncing it to have been a certain way. But these were all absent, and on my own I am not able (not just incompetent, or unqualified – really unable) to produce a medical diagnosis, whatever hunches or reasoned guesses I might have. In 2020, in our society, this is a job for the systems of science, as it has been for most of the last century. Just me and the virus working together are insufficient for it to be the case that I ‘had Covid’. Yet huge numbers of us have been left to make this assessment ourselves, or to err on the side of caution, say we did not have it, that time we were really sick, and live with a lingering feeling that we might have done after all. For me, this sort of limit on my capacity to describe a state of affairs is one of the main sources of the uncertainty pervading things. I might be right to think things are a particular way, or I might not. But things really are some particular way, whatever I feel I can say about them or not. Underneath all our ideas of it, reality exists independently of them and has the last word.

These sociotechnical systems that manage disease are also why any talk of ‘going back to normal’ is misguided. It’s not a question of choosing whether or not to go back, ‘returning to normal’ or, since normal was the problem, ‘building back better’. Any semblance of regular life will have been produced by a vast investment of effort and capital, and its continuation will depend on this effort being sustained: vaccines being produced and stored, the systems through which they are distributed being maintained, researchers’ attention being given to the genetic career of the virus and its relatives, sufficient people sustaining a postive attitude towards taking vaccines. And if the pressure of these sociotechnical systems is relinquished, the underlying structures of transmission will still be there, and we will all get sick again. The pandemic and our response to it will not finish, these times will not come to an end and go away, regular life will not return: instead, they are another layer in our sedimented history that will remain alongside whatever is laid on top of it.

But the main thing that this year has made me think about, and the one I find most difficult to understand, is breath. The violence with which George Floyd, and Manuel Ellis (and before them John Neville, and Byron Williams, and Derrick Scott, and Javier Ambler, and Christopher Lowe, and Eric Garner) were murdered put, again, the horrifying words “I can’t breathe” at the centre of protests about police and state oppression of Black people. The right to draw breath, the fundamental right to be alive, under systematic attack: that this was news to so many of us is shameful. From another direction, the virus cruelly robbed so many of the capacity to draw breath, scarring lungs and separating us from one another, and, like violence from police, concentrating its power disproportionately on Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups as an avoidable result of structural inequalities. Black breath is threatened by state violence, or by the virus, or, like Ella Kissa-Debrah, by pollution (something that again disproportionately affects BAME communities), and this is a consequence of a fundamentally racist society: the structures and mechanisms that cause this are known, and need to be fought and replaced, not just deplored.

Thinking about breath, and ventilation, and the qualities of the air that we rely on, has reinforced to me the fiction of gaps, of there being empty space in the world. Everywhere (everyone) is inescapably filled, permeated, populated with atmospheres of various compositions: inside and out, we live with companion organisms and moledules that don’t respect the idea of boundaries. This suffusion provokes the same kind of feeling of the ungraspable sublime as Morton’s hyperobjects: not something transcendent, belonging to some other world, but immanent in this mundane one. I suppose this kind of knowledge is another part of why we can’t go back. Everyone will have their own reasons for seeing things differently now, for having a different sense of what it means to be human and to relate to the world.

The parallels between all the above and climate change have been pointed out by many writers over the past year, and I can’t think of anything to add. But I think these themes will remain important once we’re finished talking about ‘these times’: a realist perspective, an understanding of a layered rather than linear model of time and history, a sensitivity to the way the world exceeds our understanding of it, the dislocation produced by differences in epistemic regimes, and a recognition that, without real action against them, structures and forces that have no reason to cease their activity will continue to shape society, regardless of the futures we dream up.

No resolutions, not even shorter posts or more time spent editing. Happy New Year.