With a friend we broke the social distancing protocol to go to the pub before they closed as ordered by government. In the pub there were a small band of people, some of them committed drinkers, an understandably miserable landlord and staff. Who knows how long it will be shut? The temporary end of the pub as public sphere. Now the pub must go online.
Earlier last evening we had a new thing. We held a virtual social after work on Microsoft Teams. We held a virtual happy hour in a virtual pub. The physical pub closed and the virtual pub opened. The university has rolled this software out ahead of time and at express pace. All credit to the IT people centrally and in my Faculty. It is rather an ad hoc implementation, and people are anxious about using it and getting to grips with it for the purpose of teaching and research. But for me, I like the contingent and improvised nature of this. It is rather subversive to be there in the moment trying to negotiate technology and make it work for the needs of groups and individuals. I like the possibility of uncertainty, but within reason. Although I wouldn’t like to see the entire collapse of society, just for the purpose of creativity but it does place us in the moment to contend with a changing context and with technology. I also know how much anxiety these conjunctures create, for students and for many colleagues.
As I was suggesting yesterday, the context we are in is a crisis of order, a crisis of the assumed hierarchies, practices and codes that have apparently defined our daily lives. All of these, as perceived to be the things that make us feel secure are all thrown into disarray.
I refer again to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and now as we are no longer able to make sense of what is happening. Or, the Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation, Curtis presents the argument, in his indefatigable montaged style of archived images and footage, electronic music and unique voice over, that we are reduced to a permanent state of doubt and uncertainty and not knowing what is true or false. We are reduced to a state of ongoing anxiety. That anxiety is a result of, and it is often contended to be so, increased risk. But it is not the risk per se, it is not being prepared for uncertainty that creates this anxiety.
The global pandemic, and especially the poor and tardy response and lack of preparedness of, for example, the UK state which has been stripped of any spare capacity by a decade or more of privatisation and latterly by austerity, which has resulted in a wave of complexity striking the individual. More than the unknown and more than risk it is lack of capacity to deal with increased complexity that creates the underlying anxiety.
While the state and liberal institutions are unable to mitigate for unexpected events, spare capacity and redundancy in any system allow for adaptation. We have believed that we have been able to mitigate risk by calculation – the severity of the event multiplied by its likelihood. None of this can deal with uncertainty and the unexpected. Especially when we have pared down the capacity of communities, societies and states to respond and adapt to the complexity that confronts. It is not a matter of simply calculating risk but understanding events as a rapid escalation in complexity.
No event, like the coronavirus outbreak, can be seen as simply the product of severity and likelihood, it can only be considered in terms of increased complexity and uncertainty. Not that human beings are incapable of dealing with complexity, but the organisation of government and society as a liberal democracy defined by capitalism has a lean and narrow logic for managing uncertainty as suggested by Ulrich Beck.
This is what we are left with is widespread anxiety which is being precipitated in the panic buying of toilet roll. Psychoanalyze that!