This post is an exercise in imagining what social scientists need to do in order to learn about the spread of Corona, from the point of view of an anthropology steeped in the epistemology of ethnography. The appearance of Corona in all our lives is also an opportunity to understand better how real (not imagined) worlds are constructed by human beings, as well as what are the consequences of the particular worlds actually constructed on the everyday lives of people in the populations caught in that world, whether they bend to the new constraints, resist them, or (deep) play with them. In other words, for those who work off Foucault: how does governmentality actually work?
I introduced what I am exploring here in my earlier post about the speech acts which, as I drove west, closed restaurants (March 28, 2020 ). These speech acts traveled down pathways from some source to a local establishment where it will be experienced, say by a restaurant manager, and then lead to some response, or, rather, many responses. I first “felt” Corona on March 9, when it was announced that classes at Teachers College would be “online” only starting two days later. By the 12th, I, along with everyone else at Teachers College received a message from our president, forwarding the message that the president of Columbia had sent to all on some enormous mailing list (the “Columbia community” as it was deemed). The message mentioned the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and it made it appear as if the “University” was the acting subject. No mention of any internal mechanism was indicated in the key sentence “we now need to take further steps.” Who is “we” here, ethnographically? Given that the conversations that led to the decision are “privileged” (i.e. secret except to a few), I imagine that the participants included trustees, lawyers, insurers. I imagine conversations among the presidents of New York University, Cornell and perhaps others. And I imagine calls to the state governor or his staff.
The conversations that led to the announcement of what “we” would do next will remain secret for 30 years at least. But they must have been all the more intense that the WHO or CDC or NY state suggestions and decrees left some matter to local interpretation and improvisation on the overall Corona theme. It is a matter of public information that universities of Columbia’s standing did speech act with different consequences for their students. On March 9th, talking with some colleagues at Indiana University we wondered about Harvard’s decision to abruptly close all student residences, with apparently little concern with whether students actually had a “home” to go back to. Eventually Columbia went a different way, “strongly urging” students to go home, but accommodating those who could not (for example the many students from China).
Ethnographers will rarely be given permission to take notes when speech acts affecting millions if not billions are being performed. Few of us can study “up” so we will have to find settings that will allow us to observe, collect, take notes, etc. among people relatively “down” from our status. In particular anthropologists will be able to document what some people did as they responded to decrees by governors (presidents, first ministers, superintendents, chiefs—whatever they may be called in this or that world). For a few days for example, some of us at Teachers College imagined (hoped?) that the “closure” was not an absolute one. We exchanged e-mails about whether someone could water the plants in my office. As we did, we came to understand the depth of the closure and the not-at-all symbolic strength of Corona. I do not know whether my plants are surviving though it may be that one of the few human beings who can still enter the building is watering them.
As with all ethnography, this little vignette does not seem to mean much. And yet it can be the grounds on which one can model the Corona pathways and the activity of human beings when caught anywhere in what is essentially a daedalus.
So, in summary, and in a very preliminary fashion:
— A consists of some human beings who can decree what B, C, D, n…. must do or else some punishment may ensue. The people of A meet, deliberate and then they decree.
— B (C, D, n…. ) consists of some other human beings who receive the decree and translate it so that it makes sense for them. In the process, after meetings, deliberations, etc. they come up with further decrees to those over which they have more focused authority Ba, Bb, Bc, Bn….
–Ba (Bb, Bc, Bn…) then, meet, translate, deliberate and, perhaps come up with still further specific decrees on Ba1, Ba2, Ban…
— (A) the governor of NY state decrees that all non-essential businesses should close;
— (B) university presidents decree that all teaching would be online using Zoom (rather than Skype)
— (Ba) individual faculty members on sabbatical and traveling to give lectures must decide whether to continue driving, etc. This response is made in collaboration with children, in-laws, etc.
(Ba) is where ethnographers will be enter to the world of Corona and give evidence as to what people who had no voice in the making of some policy do as they translate the particular mandate they received into their own lives among their most significant others.
The point is that people, everywhere and everywhen, when the recipient of a decree that makes a very real world for them, will make something else with the decree that those who made the decree cannot predict or control. As I argued in Educating in Life (2019), building on Rancière, a powerful event in one’s life will lead to a whole set of “next” steps sensitive to the actual practical character of the event, the resources available, the more or less significant others with whom one will try to construct a next, and then the response to the responses by those who produced the event in the first place.
Remember Alice and the flamingo !