Literally millions of words have been exhausted in the ether about the current circumstances of life in the (Global North) world altered by Coronavirus Disease 2019. I hesitate to add any. What can be said? We express our collective and individual despair, hopes, rage and a myriad other responses, more-often-than-not, quickly. We look for ready answers. We look for analogies, metaphors and similies. We attempt to find certainty. Unfortunately, none is forthcoming.
“The search for the means to put an end to things, … is what enables the discourse to continue.”The Unnamable – Samuel Beckett
Closeted, imperfectly, in a bedroom at a small desk, all of the attempts to concretise, to render things certain, as normatively positive or negative, wash past me on-screen. Mostly it is in the column of the phone screen as I frustratedly monitor a bigger screen and wait for student work to download, or feedback and marks to update. Not-so-quietly I may swear as systems stall, efforts are lost or in vain. The window is a constant distraction, as are the cries of laughter or tears from our children.
A vacilation between distraction and uncertainty seems to be the only rhythm to the time I spend working. I mark, I check the news. I mark, I check social media. I attend a ‘meeting’, my children shout. I reply to emails, the doorbell rings for yet another delivery. The negotiation of new norms of communication draws on pre-existing expectations but there are, as Nancy Baym has noted, moments of jarring difference when moving between contexts. We remain uncertain. For example: faces are (sometimes surprisingly) hidden or visible. I sometimes don’t know what is ‘polite’.
There are, of course, bigger uncertainties. Our governments appear not to agree on what is for the best. Universities do not know where the money will come from, if students will return, how that could happen safely, or when any of this might be possible. The rhetoric of the UK Prime Minister’s speech to the nation on Sunday 10th May was imbued with this conditional uncertainty. There was a striking repetition of the word “if“. It was perhaps an attempt to borrow the formal logic exemplified in the controlled uncertainty of the conditional statements we see in programming languages “if — then — (else —)”. Nevertheless, I confess, I remain uncertain even about that.
Holding several competing, perhaps mutually exclusive, possible eventualities at once in our minds appears to be what is asked of us. If the rate of transmission drops below the desired threshold and if we can track and trace infections then some things are said to be possible — more shops might open, children might return to schools. Some semblance of certainty to the risk is attempted through a ‘COVID Alert Level’ of 1-5. Lending the certainty of an integer value to a largely unseen risk. The visualisation of that level employs colour, attempting to convey threat through the perceptual cues of the colour spectrum – just as Brian Massumi diagnosed in relation to the even more abstract Terror Alert System of the Bush Administration.
It is all too easy to slip into another form of certainty, though – the certainty of critique. The temptation is to point the finger, to judge. To highlight the failings or mis-steps of a government, institution, or official is relatively easy. To say what is ‘wrong’ is relatively easy. The challenge for us all, whether we remain in work at a care home, hospital or supermarket, whether we are in our makeshift home offices, or whether we are in government, is to collectively find what is ‘right’. I do not flatter myself to think that I can help guide national policy, that is for others far more capable. Nevertheless, we all need both in conversations ‘at work’, in our homes and with those we rely upon or who rely upon us to negotiate what is ‘right’ in how we behave now. How much should parents and teachers expect of our children, or ourselves, when ‘home schooling’? How much should employers and colleagues expect of us as we navigate different WFH contexts? These negotiations appear to be really demanding, exhausting even.
A further conditional uncertainty: If we can negotiate our differing expectations, if we can find a way through the ongoing difficulties of ‘social distancing’, if the measures work to restrain ‘the virus’, then… what? Like many people I find it hard to imagine ‘what next’. Can we ‘return to normal’? What does that mean? Is life on campus now irrevocably changed? Should we expect the ‘online pivot’ to be a part of the ‘new normal’? I suspect that, for all the speculation and argument offered out there, what eventually comes about will be more ramshackle and less catastrophic than some might expect. This ongoing uncertainty, even as we (hopefully) pass the milestones to leave ‘lockdown’, seems like a challenge that will remain a part of working life for some time to come.
Like it or loathe it, this is perhaps the condition of life represented by ‘the anthropocene‘ – the abstract, multifaceted threat of profound if partially unknowable but wholly undesirable change. The experience of the, perhaps naïve – often privileged, pontificators like myself may simply bring us to realisation that nobody is immune from complex and uncertain changes. This is what is meant by that near-catchphrase of ‘an interconnected world’, this is what that can feel like.
There are no easy answers. That is my only realisation from this. Not profound but fairly solid, in the face of stultifying uncertainty. We can vomit words onto our digital platforms, as I am doing here, but they are unlikely to provide more than momentary solace. As a sufferer from anxiety for all of my adult life the feelings brought about are familiar if unwelcome. So I focus on one aim: help others and myself to avoid climbing the walls.