Where are we now? In search of a conversation, beyond graphs and statistics

 “That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.” Hume

I’ve been trying to begin this post for a number of days now. Everything I write feels like a failure. Why is that? Everything seems out of place. I don’t have any interesting opinions to share and I’ve even lost my own conventions for writing. Before March 2020, when I began to write something, I often felt a background against which I was thinking: What I wanted to say felt “worth noting”, “exaggerated”, “inappropriate”, “dull” or whatever, because there was a normality that afforded orientation, a canvas to which I could add my scribbles. Now it feels as if the canvas were gone. With everything in motion, all eyes fixed on the graphs showing the spread of the coronavirus, there is no normality. Of course, there are people trying to maintain business as usual, but funnily enough it is them who stand out a bit awkwardly now, because most of us live in uncertainty. (Here, I’m not talking about all the admirable professionals who work ceaselessly to limit the damage, but ordinary people tucked away in their homes.) We don’t know what’s coming next, whether curves go up or down, whether our neighbours or loved ones or we will be affected more drastically, whether we can return to the normal lives that we had to put on hold. What can we say, if we want to talk and say something beyond repeating or questioning statistics or predictions? It seems as if there were currently no proper place for a conversation between ordinary people. But we need to talk. At least I do.

It feels important to speak, not because I have anything to say, but simply because I think I need a continued conversation, I need to connect. I’m writing in the first person deliberately now. Firstly, because I’m not sure I can speak for anyone else. Secondly, because I begin to feel sick of the third-person perspective. The talk about our lives seems largely determined by graphs and pandemic plans, by talk about symptoms, spreaders, medical, social and economic challenges. Don’t get me wrong: I think this is vitally important. But beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ordinary exchange that acknowledges the current situation. The lack of normality makes most of what drove our interactions before March 2020 seem rather pointless. In a manner of speaking, I’m inclined to say that I no longer take it for granted that the sun will rise tomorrow. It’s custom and convention that made me expect so, but much of that custom and convention is shattered for the time being. Currently, my friends and colleagues are not friends and colleagues but potential spreaders. So am I. Thank God, then, we have these virtual tools now, but they do have limits that I need to get used to. What’s perhaps more, we neeed a mode of speaking that neither relies on the past status quo nor merely echoes the current medicalisation of our lives.

So how can we connect? How can we have such a conversation? I’m asking because there is so much exchange and advice on how to get through. This is good. But it concerns an uncertain future. I want to talk about the present. I want to understand, not just cope with, what is happening now. No, not in numbers. I want to understand the kind of life we’re living now. We keep acknowledging that these are “strange times”. But they are our times now. We are disconnected from our recent past and from the predictions that guided us then, up till February or March 2020. The catch is: I cannot understand anything on my own. Understanding is a joint project. It works through mutual acknowledgement, occasional disagreement, and refinement, creating a shared familiarity, fostering hopes and hangovers. – But while I have not much to say myself, I have found some really good pieces that helped me shaping my thoughts. (While there are many other good pieces, I’d like to focus on those acknowledging the situation and addressing to some degree concerns of our ordinary lives.) So why not simply list them (in order of appearance):

  • The first is “Academics, lead by example” by Boudewijn de Bruin. Amidst numerous (laudable) attempts to maintain business as usual, this piece felt as if someone had opened a window and let in some fresh air. A crucial idea is the acknowledgement that this is not a normal situation and that we need different resources to respond to challenges: “This is not the time to be competitive. This is not the time to tell everyone how productive you are, working 24/7. … So should we give up? Not at all. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s just business as usual, only online. Seize the opportunity and lead by example and share your wisdom and humanity with your students and colleagues.”
    What I particularly liked about Boudewijn’s account is that he has a clear sense of how he arrived at this acknowledgement. It came through listening to others. Accordingly, he writes: “Listening to people with different views is more important now than ever. Think about all your students and colleagues of different nationalities, from different cultures, different religions. They will bring their own ways of dealing with uncertainty. They have their own views about life and death. They may have widely different expectations about the responsibilities of the state – or they may trust the state much less than you do, or more. Imagine what you would want to do if you were in Italy or Iran right now. You would want to go home. Many of our non-Dutch students and colleagues are in that situation. But many borders are closed. They need our care more than ever.”
  • The second is “Covid-19 and online teaching: mind the slope” by Andrea Sangiacomo. He stresses that, while it’s fine to try and remain functional, we must do so by respecting the context in which we function: “If the whole university system happens to run quite smoothly online, if in the end we end up enjoying this (and this might even happen, who knows?), another risk is forgetting why everything is moving online. Reminder: we’re amidst a world pandemic that so far killed almost 15.000 people worldwide (as for today, Monday 23rd March 2020). This is the context within which our online teaching is happening. Remembering this context is important in order not to loose perspective on the meaning of the events, including online teaching. Yes, education needs to keep going, not everything can now become explicitly about the pandemic. And yet, this pandemic is now the broader context within which people are teaching and learning about any subject. We’re teaching online because students (and everybody else) must remain home, trying to limit as much as possible social contacts, practicing social distancing and trying to slow down the spreading of the virus.
    There are pragmatic and existential downsides in forgetting about this context. From a pragmatic point of view, if one looses this context one might forget why staying home and avoid socializing is so vital for everybody at this time. Online teaching becomes just another way of getting distracted, trying to find something in which one can become absorbed, in order not to think to what is happening (about the absorption syndrome see here). But in situations of emergency like this (which will likely endure for some time), trying not to think is precisely the worse one could do. We need all our thinking capacity at this point in order to face whatever will happen.”
  • The last one I want to list for now is “It’s all just beginning” by Justin E.H. Smith. It’s a very rich and multifaceted piece. What struck me most is that it gave voice to a feeling that I struggled to express myself earlier to no avail: the strange disconnection to our own and shared pasts: “In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways. …
    We created a small phenomenal world for ourselves, with our memes and streams and conference calls. And now—the unfathomable irony—that phenomenal world is turning out to be the last desperate repair of the human, within a vastly greater and truer natural world that the human had nearly, but not quite, succeeded in screening out.”

In sum, it’s the call to listen to others, to respect our context of emergency, and the insight into the disconnection to many habits and values that began to help me localising my own thoughts. What I begin to see is that my habits and my past don’t provide orientation in the current context. But it’s the current context I live in and need to understand. In order to live, we need customs and habits. If past habits don’t help us, we need to stabilise habits by building and sharing them with one another. Medical and other expert advice is crucial, but only goes so far. That’s why I want to search for voices speaking to the ordinary experience we likely share. For now, we need to establish something from scratch. – So I’d be grateful for any hints at attempts to make sense of the present situation.

5 thoughts on “Where are we now? In search of a conversation, beyond graphs and statistics

  1. Thank you for this post. I can relate to your sense of uncomfortableness. Looking at my facebook feed, I feel bewildered and, to be honest, a little depressed by posts discussing which paper/blogpost to write about Corona, how to do public philosophy in times of Corona, which Corona-related topics to pursue during the coming weeks, etc.

    Personally, I think that my bewilderment stems from the feeling that what we should be doing right now is asking questions about academic philosophy itself, its purpose, its justification — about what we do and who we are and whether what we do really does matter to society.

    I was reminded of a paragraph in Feyerabends autobiography “Zeitverschwendung”. He writes: “Ich erklärte in meinen Vorlesungen und in meinen Aufsätzen, daß die Suche nach der Wahrheit, die sich in den Grenzen eines bestimmten Metiers wie der Physik oder der Philosophie abspielt, […] unser Dasein nicht erschöpf[t] und daß die Anzahl unserer Werke und/oder Taten nicht unser Leben ausmacht. Diese Aktivitäten und Ergebnisse sind, sagte ich, nur Trümmer, Wrackteile auf einem Ozean. Diese Teile können sich zusammenfügen und denen Halt geben, die sie für wesentlich halten. Sie können sogar eine feste Grundlage abgeben und so die Illusion von Universalität, Sicherheit und Dauer hervorrufen. Aber Sicherheit und Dauer können unversehens hinweggefegt werden von den Mächten, die ihre Entstehung ermöglichten. Ich spürte, daß Aufsätze und Vorlesungen eine Sache waren und das Leben eine andere, und ich riet meinen Studenten, den Schwerpunkt ihres Lebens auf jeden Fall außerhalb ihres Berufes zu suchen.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks! I couldn’t agree more with the spirit and content of your comment.

      I think that philosophers should openly address the questions you raise. However, I also think that it might be easier to do so from privileged positions. I often wonder whether I’d dare to say what I say, had I not the secure position I happen to have.
      But even if that’s true, there is (even among the more privileged ones) a widespread professionalism that incentivises the “application” of philosophical “toolkits” no matter what. If we continue to ignore the, say, more existential dimensions of philosophy and the questions you mention, I fear that we will be pushed to the fringes completely when the (likely) recession is going to hit higher education.

      Liked by 1 person

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