A global empirical research project from my front room

6 min read

I am a prisoner in the new zombie apocalypse. Yes, I am being alarmist once again. I am isolating myself because of COVID-19 or coronavirus. The clocks have gone forward. My computers and devices all managed to update themselves to one hour hence and adjust to British Summer TIme. My central heating system and cooker needed updating manually. When I got up one hour before I ought to have done – because my iPhone had automatically and precisely adjusted from Greenwich Mean Time – I set to with my vegetarian full English breakfast: mushrooms, tomatoes, vegetarian sausages and a couple of eggs. I hung the washing out. The bedding is now doing battle with the wind, no, it is coping with a brisk spring breeze. I am faced with life-changing decisions about whether to bring the washing in and hang it out inside or whether to leave it outside. Such are the dilemmas of late, liquid, or even post- modernity. It is possible to project the dilemmas of the every day to such an extent that I can claim that my thought and behaviour is symptomatic of an epochal transition. No, it isn’t. Humanity has always been trying to keep itself clean and dry. Plus ça change.

The wind is getting up, it is growling down my dead-end street of Victorian terraced houses. Cute little two-bedroom places built in the latter half of the nineteenth century, perhaps to house a growing urban working class. Before the pandemic, this house was probably worth about £420,000, maybe more. It probably needs another £20,000 to £30,000 to bring it up to a reasonable spec. What is it worth now? The housing market has been suspended. You can’t buy and sell. Notionally, it’s worth the same. It has a value but based on a past market that no longer exists. It has an abstract value in that sense, but it is really only worth: a) what someone is prepared to pay for it (and they can’t so it is worth £0) and/ or b) what it is as a home and a shelter. That’s it, a house is simply a place to shelter and to protect us from the complexity, harshness and unpredictability of the environment. It is somewhere to wash and dry my clothes and bedding. That’s what it is worth, protection, comfort and utility.

Where did the contradictions of late modernity go? I was well attuned to them only two days ago. The world was in crisis, its population in panic. For us (I mean me) a crisis of representation as I project my reading of theory and of literature on to people’s experiences. I have a salary, I have work to do. I am just detached from people. But I like that too. I like being gregarious from a distance and on my own terms. And as I go to Asda every couple of days, people are going about their daily lives as far as I can see. Asda has now enforced social distancing, with a security guard and a queue to get in, to limit the number of people in the shop itself. A cyclist nearly collided with me while I was trying to find the end of the long queue that snaked around the trolley store. It was a slow-motion stuttering action as the cyclist steadily fell off their bike in a non-injurious way. I didn’t really look at them but I said, “it is the pavement you know.” I thought that a bit harsh and added, “but do take care.” I later felt guilty about not showing greater gushing humanity in these extraordinary times, times that at the moment I am not finding really that extraordinary except that I am not allowed to go to coffee shops and pubs (the utter hardship). Although last time I was hit by a cyclist I cut my head open and ended up in an ambulance covered, dramatically, in blood. Forgive me for the lack of performative sympathy for the cyclist who fell off their bike to avoid cycling into me on the pavement. I just needed to get that off my chest, it’s not epochal, it was not a postmodern event, it was just one of those everyday things.

It was going to happen. It was going to rain. I had to get my washing in and just adding to my morning’s rather limited drama. But I can imagine myself, a lone yachtsman circumnavigating the globe, having to go up on deck to change sail configurations in response to changing weather conditions. As I pulled my Marks and Spencer’s white king size fitted sheet from the washing line, I could imagine myself trying to stay upright and secure on the bucking deck of my (fictitious) 40-foot ketch wrestling with hundreds of square yards (imperial measures) of heavy gauge polyester sail (or are they all kevlar carbon fibre these days?) There could be a point to these rich imaginings and I feel compelled to make it. The point is this, about complexity and unknowability. Human beings seem remarkably well equipped – with a little immersive practice – to sense changes in the weather much more so than the computational predictions of the weather. That is of course in their immediate environs. I have really no sense of weather and climate in different parts of Africa, India, China or South America. For that, I do need information. Likewise, I have really no sense of how others are experiencing the current global pandemic, yet as I have been writing about this week, I have been aware that I am abstracting from my own experience.

For this, I have little or no sense of how many people across the world might be suffering as a consequence of COVID-19. The entirety of my empirical work is from the inside of my house. Or apart from while out exercising or going to the shops. And there is online contact with friends and work colleagues. But I have little contact with people who are facing real hardship through poverty, lost jobs, insecure accommodation, ill health, statelessness, even violence and intimidation. No doubt there is anxiety abroad amongst my small circle. But am I or is my group facing a crisis? Well, not yet.

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