The yearning for crisis

Hove, May 5th. The UK has recorded the highest number of deaths linked to Coronavirus of any European country, second only to the United States.

By now, there is an extraordinary production of social sciences and humanities writing on every aspect of the pandemic, in multiple disciplinary idioms. Established web spaces such as Somatosphere, Discover Society, and The Conversation have rubrics dedicated to COVID-19, gathering contributions in real time. Other influential blogs offer compilations and meta-compilations of material originally published elsewhere. Everyone is invited to contribute to archives-in-the-making of affective and practical responses to the crisis.

The expression ‘rapid response’—once reserved for teams of healthcare professionals especially trained to provide emergency services—has found its way into calls for papers addressed to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, cultural theorists, literary scholars, philosophers. Keeping pace with the output of researchers in the medical sciences (some of whom have acquired the status and following of public intellectuals), scholars in social and cultural disciplines claim a similar sense of responsibility, of urgency. Now is the time to intervene, to mobilise and publicise the ideas that will make a difference. The crisis must be seized, and not wasted.

While the impetus to contribute appears thus irresistible, it is also ambiguous. In rare instances of explicit reflexivity, doubt and hesitation emerge. ‘Writing has always been my therapy to the horrors of the world’, muses Brad Evans in the LA Review of Books, introducing a special edition entitled The Quarantine Files. Could the urge to write then reflect something other than a social conscience? Perhaps even a form of self-indulgence? Indeed, as Evan asks, ‘[w]hat [is] the point of saying anything right now? Should we not spend more time reflecting on the significance? Might we not simply reaffirm our own privileged positions? Worse still, might our interventions come across as parasitic to the virus?’ Amid the deluge of commentary, there is already talk of a COVID-19 gold rush, making the most of what the virus can offer in terms of accelerated publication schedules and academic CVs. The crisis must be seized, and not wasted.

In fleeting communications more personal in tone and scope—via email perhaps, or phone, but also social media for all to see—others tell of their struggles to think or write at all during this period of lockdown. They are, as a friend recently said of herself, consumed with just living. In this middle tier of the pandemic caste system this means being consumed with looking after children or partners, keeping up with the news, queuing for shopping, taking exercise, cooking and baking, tending gardens, cleaning and decluttering, perhaps discovering old photographs and losing oneself in nostalgia, or grief. Trying to feel ok—I cite verbatim—about not using this time more productively to conceive a new project, to write a book. Trying to feel ok about just living, for once. The crisis must be seized, and not wasted.

The twittersphere is buzzing, too, with the experiences of those recovering from COVID-19. Writing from the equivocal comfort of their homes, these are the mild cases in the epidemiological sense of mild: those that have not required hospitalisation. But they have not felt mild at their peak, in isolation, and the illness never quite seems to go away. Symptoms emerge and diversify over time, waxing and waning in deceptive patterns, with apparent recovery followed by relapses—sometimes steep, often only hours long. The Check If You Have Coronavirus NHS website paints a picture of fever and coughs; there is no mention of extreme fatigue, or loss of smell, or conjunctivitis, or COVID toes, or urticaria, or gastric symptoms, or others still. As they multiply and connect, first-person symptom chronicles begin to look like a spontaneous project in citizen science. The radical novelty of the virus, writes Lorraine Daston, has thrown us back into the seventeenth century, the age of ground zero empiricism, where ‘not only natural philosophers… or professors in their white lab coats but legions of lynx-eyed investigators everywhere, at sea and in fields, in cities and in kitchens’ counted as researchers and proto-scientists. So here we find ourselves, at ground zero, observing the experience of illness and the pandemic as if our lives depended on it. The ‘lay perspective’ and stories of sickness acquire new meaning, new status, a new kind of relevance, no longer reducible to just one side (the flaky side, the afterthought side) of the modern divide between knowledge that is objective or subjective, indeed as if innocent of that very divide. The crisis must be seized, and not wasted.

Yet, we are not at ground zero, nor innocent of modern dualism, and the virus—itself barely understood—is already implicated in complex semantic relationships with other, chronically uncertain conditions. There are speculations that COVID-19 might lead to outbreaks of post-viral syndromes, such as Chronic Fatigue (CFS/ME). If such outbreaks do occur, as seems likely, it is also likely that this fact will be deployed in long-standing polemics over whether the syndromes are physical or mental, biomedical or moral, real or ‘all in the mind’. The crisis must be seized, and not wasted.

What might it mean to steer a different course, to avoid the trap of mutually exclusive alternatives? Indeed it matters how we use the term ‘mild’, and whether COVID-19 is conceived as lasting up to 14 days, or 40, or 400.  It matters how we define recovery, and thus our expectations—both public and private, institutional and interpersonal—of when it might be ok to work or rest (or play). It matters to acknowledge how it is possible not to have a clear answer when confronted with the question: Are you better yet? And it matters to ponder what right of existence, if any, the reality of such an experience is granted in the imaginary of our economic and institutional arrangements. A virologist with first-hand experience of the disease reports the anguish occasioned by the long tail of constantly shifting, bizarre symptoms, and by people misattributing them to stress or anxiety; the disease, he stresses, should not be mistaken for a post-viral syndrome. Yet it also matters to explore what kind of lure Are you better yet? might constitute when asked, again and again, from without and from within, with stakes escalating over time; it matters to ask what possibilities the compelling force of this question might call forth into our lives, other than recovery. And it matters, of course, that we understand how fatigue can be an intensely painful diminishment of self and, as such, an existential threat of the most serious order: for it is possible to not die and yet not quite be alive.

Above all, the crisis must be seized and not wasted. But this imperative itself is full of ambiguity, of uncertainty, of anxiety. The pandemic brims with a different sense of opportunity in each scene. There is the felt possibility of an evolutionary leap of progressive change, on multiple fronts of varying scales: the vision of a Green New Deal or of new fiscal regimes the realisation of which, we are told, has suddenly become thinkable with the meltdown of every other seeming certainty, in this festival of solidarity with the most poorly paid (those we now call ‘key’ or ‘essential’ workers). There is the glimpse of a life of new, slower habits, a life whose just living is not done by stealth, as if misappropriated from the process of production. We are invited to observe the anatomy of this life with surgical precision, to articulate inventories of which elements of it we might wish to develop, versus those we will be glad to forego. In this way, we are exhorted to invent a socialism not merely focused on redistribution—a socialism that contests production itself as the overriding principle of our relationship to the world.

In a different corner of the meltdown, the COVID-19 symptom inventories kept by lynx-eyed lay investigators hold an equivalent, if somewhat more implicit promise. They defy the expectations of recovery detailed in government-issued guidelines, and the hard-and-fast distinction between illness and wellness these imply. They do this while also revealing that it is in repeated and frustrated attempts to resume production—as writers, as researchers, and elsewhere—that the guidelines really come to jar with experience. The jarring is more than an abstract contradiction, and it is not innocuous: it adds elements of perplexity, confusion, self-doubt that become ingredients in perception, a further factor of destabilisation in the fraught process of finding a new, post-viral equilibrium. Under ‘old normal’ conditions this type of thing occurs tacitly and privately, there is no time nor space nor patience for perplexity over symptoms that are not going to kill you.  But now—in this fleeting moment when uncertainty is generalised, and when that of our scientists is uncharacteristically explicit—now it is possible to assert the importance of paying attention to experience, and the (epistemic and medical) possibility of organic self-doubt. Chronicled in real time, self-doubt and confusion become part of the inventory of injuries occasioned not just by the virus, but also by misguided authority: an authority that conflates the return to health with the return to business and to business as usuaI, as if health were our usual, our norm. Again, an authority guided by production as the overriding principle of our relationship to the world and to ourselves. Now, momentarily, it seems possible to assert just how suffocating, and exhausting, and painful this principle is—on multiple fronts, across a spectrum of scales—and to set to work on imagining and crafting how else we might live.

But seizing the crisis can also mean feeling the lure of the gold rush, the default option of opportunity—always better organised, all systems already set up. In this sense the COVID-19 crisis actually is business as usual, not unlike other crises on which it is superimposed, objects of never-ending and profitable speculation, competitive events made of winners and losers. The crisis has prompted a frenzy of commentary and research, part of an accelerated cycle of academic production, while universities themselves teeter on the brink of financial catastrophe—one aggravated but not caused by the virus. As we feel compelled to write, or anxious at our inability to do so, ironically we struggle to experience the crisis as the profound moment of revaluation we want to claim it is. We are caught in the paradox of writing and thinking as production and as the means of our own, individualised, agonistic struggle for survival. We wonder about our motives, or at least we should. And, amid the cacophony, we wonder what type of intervention might produce the quiet we need, to consider what really matters.