by Joan Harvey
I’ve been pondering how, in all the Covid-19 turmoil, so many who believe in an invisible God have become the last to give credence to actually existing but invisible substances. There is some irony in people risking their lives by crowding together to pray to something for which there is no evidence. Pray for what? Long life? Their mothers’ health? People can imagine some great dude in the sky, but not that something unseen but proven by science can actually hurt them, or that by carrying it unknowingly they could accidentally hurt others. In some cases, of course, they believe that because of Jesus, they are immune.
Barbara Adam points out that imagination is a necessity when considering the latent effects of invisible forces over time:
Since we have no sense organ for time, we need. . . the entire complement of our senses working in unison with our imagination before we can experience its workings in our bodies and the environment. Such an effort at the level of imagination is needed if we are to be able to take account in our dealings with the environment of latency and immanence, pace and intensity, contingency and context dependence. . . the influence of the past and the projection into an open future.[i]
The majority of infectious diseases are at their most infectious before symptoms appear. Meanwhile, as I write, Florida and Texas still consider worship an essential activity. Even if one lacks imagination, one can believe in God, I suppose, because of lifetimes of indoctrination. We are certainly a gullible nation and apparently at least half of Americans “are absolutely certain Heaven exists, ruled over by a person God—not some vague force or universal spirit but a guy.”[ii] I don’t mean to dismiss those who believe deeply in God and yet also take science seriously. But those are generally not the ones who have been crowding megachurches and claiming the virus is a hoax. And, of course, believers are being grossly manipulated for both economic and political aims.
There seems to be a split between those who give credence to invisible forces that have real effects over time, things such as nuclear radiation, global warming, hormones in the water, chemical pollution, and, in this case, the latest coronavirus, and those who believe in an invisible god, but not in the delayed action of invisible but material agents. (The irony in this case is that science has been responsible for most of these disasters, or in the case of the virus, has created, through our globally connected world, the infrastructure in which it has spread.)
This failure of imagination, which is also a failure of empathy modeled at the highest level, results in the inability to think of a still-abstract future. When this is combined with the success of our skewed media system in which everything, including science, is politicized, and facts do not matter, we head straight toward disaster. Timothy Snyder has said, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Now we are also seeing that post-truth can be pre-death.
2) time = money
We are caught in a frenzy of enforced socialization. To produce and to work implies that we be connected; connection equals work.[iii] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi
It has never been clearer (more visible) how accustomed we are to living in a world in which time equals money. When these become uncoupled, we are both frightened (how will we eat?) and bewildered (what do I do with myself all day?). Our time has been almost completely tied to work and consumption. As Anthony Wilden puts it:
The kind of social organization required by a technological society in the modern sense is one in which the efficiency of the interchangeable machine part—the digital component which can be combined in many different ways—becomes a principle of social relationships.[iv]
We use the same screens and gestures for banking as we do for hooking up.
Jonathan Crary points out how the military has been trying to find ways to make it possible for soldiers to do without sleep for long periods. Work can then be extracted from those otherwise wasted hours. Another (failed) project Crary mentions was to send reflecting satellites into the sky so that there would be no periods of real darkness. More time for production, and the night sky no longer a public commons, but one controlled by corporations. Crary writes:
It is only recently that the elaboration, the modeling of one’s personal and social identity, has been reorganized to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks, and other systems. A 24/7 environment has the semblance of a social world, but it is actually a non-social model of machinic performance and a suspension of living that does not disclose the human cost required to sustain its effectiveness.[v]
Now that we are isolated and separated, the parts we play in the great societal machine become more evident and the cost more visible.
For mothers who work at home, for young children and very old people, for the disabled and their caretakers, for prisoners, for the unemployed, time is not money.[vi] But since money relates to power, they are the powerless, and because they don’t contribute financially to the system they aren’t considered valuable. In the current moment part of people’s stress is that the loss of a job can amount to being considered entirely expendable.
Disconnected from the busy hive, thrown back on our own, we could find a different rhythm to life. But financial insecurity, as well as health fears, keep most from enjoying what might be a welcome break. It becomes clear how both the law and the state fail us. I have friends who believed that a general strike would be the only way to change the precarious and unjust economic conditions in America. Malcolm Bull tells us:
In the Jewish law, jubilees were years when normal working activities ceased, and the socially dead were resuscitated – debtors given relief, slaves freed and the poor reunited with their property. Such practices provided the model for the first attempted general strike. . .[vii]
But, for many reasons, jubilees have not been held for centuries. And a general strike in the United States has always seemed impossible to me. We don’t have the kind of labor history they do in places like France, and any unified action would be impossible to achieve. With enforced staying at home we have the closest thing to it, yet this doesn’t seem as if it will get us better government. There are many who hope that the disruption of our system will lead toward something more compassionate, more equitable, yet the opposite seems to be true; the shift is toward more authoritarianism, more greed, more threats to the most vulnerable, more racism. Failings that were previously recognized but suppressed are now thrown in our face. Arundhati Roy writes:
It is the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years. Who doesn’t remember the videos of “patient dumping” — sick people, still in their hospital gowns, butt naked, being surreptitiously dumped on street corners? Hospital doors have too often been closed to the less fortunate citizens of the US. It hasn’t mattered how sick they’ve been, or how much they’ve suffered.[viii]
My friend’s son, a young black man, was turned away from a hospital not that many years ago because he had no health insurance. He died at age 20 of an easily treated condition. We now read stories of people charged incredible amounts for Covid-19 treatment, people afraid to go to the hospital because of costs, hospitals cutting the wages of doctors and other healthcare professionals.
Meanwhile my Facebook ads advise me to “Stay home and look fabulous in our comfy velvet set!” I’m also getting ads for silk pajamas, face masks with huge over-inflated lips, and sexy underwear, which I suppose I could wear in what I’m told is a Finnish style of “stay home and get drunk in your underwear.” But like most people I can’t afford to buy anything unnecessary right now.
3) silence = death
In the relationship between society and nature, inadequate, inept, or imaginary punctuations may lead to extinction. Anthony Wilden[ix]
So much of what has gone wrong with the situation in the U.S. has been a question of time and timing. Famously Trump did not act when he could have, and undermined those who tried to sound the alarm. We aren’t heading toward extinction at this point, at least not from this virus, but thousands of deaths could have been prevented by, as Wilden puts it, the right punctuation. Knowledge was available, yet interruption of the death sentence it forecast was postponed. Because of this delay we have a situation where corpses are hauled out of New York City en masse in giant refrigerated trucks. We’re in the same position regarding climate change. The earlier the action, the less compounding of the disaster of accelerated permafrost thaw and methane release. In both cases timely action, action based on science and imagination and empathy for others, could save thousands of lives down the road.
4) carry to term
To carry is also to en-dure: to sustain and support. Bracha L. Ettinger[x]
Bracha Ettinger reminds us that every one of us was carried by our mother for nine months. That whatever our gender or our relationship to our mothers, we were, at the beginning, carried by someone else. She cites Celan: “even if ‘the world is gone, I must carry you.’ Or to say it differently; even if there is no point in it anymore, I will carry you.” Clearly she was not thinking of carrying a disease, and yet it is hard not to think of our potential as carriers of this virus. We don’t know if we carry this disease, or others, but we do carry responsibility for others, whatever form this takes, even if it is just staying home. In Hebrew the idea, Ettinger says, relates to “a kind of engagement with the other and the world, even when one is alone, even without relations, even when the other is no more, even when the world has gone, even from before we are humane.” Our understanding of science does not have to be at odds with our vision of caring. “Imagine a world where whoever says “I” is a carrier, that is response-able, not reactive.”[xi]
It’s no coincidence that I suddenly have a craving to hear “Hesitation Blues.” As time passes, what was something of an adventure at first, the knowledge one was behaving sensibly and ethically, begins to feel more strange. Now that it looks like social distancing will last at least through April, and quite possibly beyond, on the one hand we’re becoming habituated, and on the other we’re so unused to being shut-ins we don’t quite know how to cope.
Eventually there will be a vaccine; eventually more tests will be available. But when? We don’t know how long we’ll be isolated. We’re used to things having a fixed duration. For many the whole question of how they will exist after—whenever after is—is an issue. Elizabeth Grosz writes about “a future that the present cannot recognize: to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present.”[xii] Will this disease continue to flare up? Will things be worse again, as some predict, in the fall?
Time for someone with a loved one on a ventilator, or the person on the ventilator, is of course different than for most of us. Time is different for medical workers who have to work long shifts without enough sleep, without enough equipment, who have to be there for dying people, who, perhaps worst of all, don’t know how many months they’ll have to do the same thing. Time is different for those with young children at home. Time in isolation is different for introverts than it is for extroverts.
“Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level,” Carlo Rovelli tells us in his wonderful book The Order of Time. While this means I age faster than those at lower elevations, it is, at the moment, a lucky thing. Rovelli also remarks that “It only takes a few micrograms of LSD to expand our experience of time onto an epic and magical scale,”[xiii] and in a footnote he cites a paper on the effects of THC on time perception (admittedly I’ve chosen the least relevant parts of his book to quote). So, if you have used up all your acid supplies microdosing, don’t forget that weed (in edible form to protect your lungs) is an option to add some variety to a long monotonous day.
I’ve now had time to read Love in the Time of Cholera. You definitely don’t learn about social distancing from the the protagonist, Florentino Ariza, who, over the course of his life, engages in six hundred twenty-two long-term sexual liaisons, not counting one-night stands and the woman he most desires. But perhaps we can learn patience from Ariza, as he waits fifty years to consummate his true love.
Like our lives, we don’t know when this will end. Or if it might possibly end in the death of someone we love. If a wave of contagion and death will flare up again in September, or if an effective vaccine will be quickly developed. If knowledge of our interconnectedness and dependency and vulnerability will make our lives better, or if our future will be under an increasingly cruel and authoritarian regime. We can only do our best, care for others and ourselves, and live with unknowing. Stay well.
[i] Barbara Adam, Timescapes of Modernity: The Environment and Invisible Hazards (New York: Routledge, 1998), 55
[iii] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, And: Phenomenology of the End (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotexte(e): 2015)
[iv] Anthony Wilden, System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1980), 91
[v] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2014) , 14
[vi] Adams, Timescapes, 68
[ix] Wilden, System and Structure, xiviii
[x] Brigit M. Kaiser, Kathrin Thiele, ”If You Do Well, Carry! The Difference of the Humane: An Interview with Bracha L. Ettinger,” philoSOPHIA, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter 2018): 106
[xi] Ibid., 116
[xii] Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 117
[xiii] Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (New York,: Riverhead Books, 2018) , 57