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The Covid condition

I have a sore throat. I want to cough, but coughing could mean I have the virus. So, superstitiously, I stop myself. I figure that, if I really had it, then I wouldn’t be able to hold back.


Steve Latham

This is the crazy condition we’re in. Thinkers used to write about “The Human Condition’ (I think about Hannah Arendt’s famous book). Now we realise there’s no such thing. We’re all diverse.

Perhaps these days we’re in a ‘Covid Condition’, a new genre of human existence; which is, using today’s common cliché, ‘unprecedented’.

The skies are empty. No planes fly over London; only the all-seeing surveillance drones, and police helicopters. Description beats prescription, to understand these “Strange Days”: stranger than the TV programme, because real.

Thus we reverse Marx: activists tried to change the world, we need to understand it. For this, we can look to speculative fiction, like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven”.

This prescient 2014 novel envisaged a world devastated by a global flu pandemic. The 2011 movie, “Contagion”, similarly pre-echoed our present predicament.

We witnessed the same phenomenon after 9.11, remembering all the disaster films of planes crashing into skyscrapers. So we live the future beforehand, through the nightmares of our culture.

To describe this, Mark Fisher used the term ‘hauntology’, borrowing from Jacques Derrida’s philosophy, to explain the way ghosts, phantasms, populate our social consciousness.

As the ripples of time transform (our awareness of) the past, so they pulse forwards, sending out probes towards possible futures.

Will social distancing cause longterm effects? Will the western handshake be replaced by the middle eastern, Muslim, hand on heart; or the eastern, Buddhist, clasped hands and slight bow?

For all the government’s emphasis on going outside for an hour’s exercise, for both physical and mental health, are we not now spending more time indoors?

Paul Virilio predicted that, watching computer screens, where we exceed the time spent even in front of our TVs, we are becoming a sedentary species.

We may need to add to Arendt’s division, between Vita Contemplativa and Vita Activa, which characterised the Mediaeval and Modern periods, the Vita Sedentaria, a new human genus.

Although, via our screens, we can travel the world, we become, as in Michel Houellebecq’s novel, “The possibility of an island”, isolated, post-human clones, separated from meaningful relationships.

Here, the fear of others takes over, leading to scapegoating, and blame-shifting. Although the ‘cock-up theory of history’ is more probable than any ‘conspiracy theory’, the latter is tempting. We want to find someone responsible: either the weak, the poor and immigrants, or the strong, secret international forces, like the Illuminati.

Franco Berardi has suggested two possible post-pandemic alternatives: either a techno-capitalist re-imposition of order, as in China, or a popular movement for systemic change.

But there seems little sign of the latter. Any hopes for a post-capitalist order seem utopian. As ever, the choice is between ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ – and which displays the most vital signs?

But more probable will be the muddling-through middle-path.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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