A global empirical research project from my front room

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.

The pubs have shut

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!

When there is no sense to be made

Of late I have been reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A considerable novel of some 1200 pages, set in Vienna in 1913. The Man Without Qualities’ central theme marks the end of the Austrian empire in crisis. Not necessarily the wholesale slaughter and violence that was to follow in the First World War, but a crisis of thought that was antecedent to war. Musil presents Austria as the pinnacle of the modern state in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The historical and philosophical underpinnings of the state are the Enlightenment. It is the triumph of reason, the capacity to rationalise and calculate in order to provision and order that society. We could probably not go as far as saying ‘democracy’ though there is a semblance of such. We could claim that Austria was perhaps a precursor to contemporary liberal democracy where there is an aspiration to a logic within civil society, based on conscious reason and materiality. There is ownership and a system of algorithms that dictate the nature of that ownerships and how value might be extracted. For this reason, it is liberal and for the reason that there is a vibrant libertarianism amongst the middle class it is also liberal. There is a democracy of sorts. There are elections and a parliament. There are many who are marginalised. Musil presents Austria in a crisis of collective loss. The nature of the crisis is symbolic, the liberal proliferation and the ideas burgeoning from bureaucracy and science are not resolving or reconciling the day-to-day experiences of individuals, they are leading to contradictions. Not just contradictions between competing ideas, explanations and representations but also contradictions between day-to-day affective experience of the world and the abstract conscious reason that is supposed to create order. It is a crisis of representation and of order.

I am only 190 pages into the book, but this is the impression I am getting. And for me this book resonates with now. Not the coronavirus pandemic as cause but just as much an effect of a crisis of liberal democracy and consequently a crisis of liberal democracy. The undoing of reason, where reason almost begins to consume its own indulgences, as reason confronts its foundational paradoxical character. We can’t now – as Musil describes how they couldn’t then – really make any enduring sense of what is happening to us, of what we experience. Meaning that is derived from cold logical reason is insufficient to account for our affective experience of the world. The espoused crisis, or looming disaster, the forthcoming zombie apocalypse, the global pandemic. We are forced to simply experience, and we cannot – or increasingly we cannot – make sense of what is happening. We are removed to perpetual state of uncertainty and doubt.