The peak Corona epoch is ending.
This may be deemed optimistic if one only listens to the New York Times or NBC. It is not that optimistic if one extrapolates from most other pandemics that appear to run their course in 18 or so months. With coming of the various vaccines, the end may even be closer.
Those who have read my earlier blogs on Corona as human production will not be surprised to read that calling “the end” will be another political act on par on the acts that, in early March 2020 closed restaurants, schools, and about everything else. Calling “the end” is to be a symbolic, imaginative, narrative move (speech act) that various governors and authorities will make at very different times. China appears to have already made this declaration. The nations of the Global North (that used to be known as ‘the West’) will declare the end in various ways. Some will just announce that large crowds can now gather in stadiums. Some will go through the process of lifting various declarations of “emergency” that currently limit usual rights. And some may even do what Catholic governors used to do in ages past and have a formal Te Deum sang in some national cathedral (as was done on the 26th of August 1944 in the Notre Dame cathedral to celebrate the liberation of Paris). As for the scientists of the CDC and WHO, they will debate for years when to place “the end” (as some continue to debate when the 1918 flu ended).
I am writing this as another kind of scientist. I am one of those who insist that close attention be paid to what human beings do with a virus and a disease as they deliberate about the virus and disease and transform them into something I call the “Corona” epoch. This transformation involves both imaginative operations (related to what Lévi-Strauss referred as “wild thinking”) and very practical ones with major consequences on the lives of people in their most local, communal and familial lives (as about every social scientists since Max, Durkheim or Weber have insisted). It is as such a scientist that I speculate about what will happen starting late in 2021 and continuing into the next century.
Be that as it may, what concerns me is the rising of the “grand narrative” about “how it was like during the pandemic” and the disputes about this narrative. Specifically, I do not quite fear that this narrative will obscure the variety of the people’s experiences. Emphasizing such varieties is now an unavoidable truism, if not a cliche. Rather I fear that the coming grand narratives about Corona (“the Covid pendemic”) will erase the evolution of Corona in the lives of the people. The main issue for me is not that Corona will have been different for people of Type A by contrast to people of Type B (C, D, E, F…). The main issue is that Corona will have been different at various points over the course of the epoch so that we, social scientists, should model the experience of A as “At1″ (A at time 1), “At2,” and so on (and of course Bt1, Bt2…, and Ct1, Ct2….)
Let me take a personal example. I am the child of parents who lived through World War II in Marseille, at the periphery of that war. They were 13 and 14 in 1940. Five years later, as the war moved into the past, they met, fell in love, and had two children who can now by summarized as “baby boomers.” They were married for more than 50 years, until my father died. What I now realize is that I know very little about the internal organization of WWII as the epoch they experienced. I have anecdotes though I cannot remember whether they were told by my parents or whether they come for Hollywood. Of the first type must be the anecdote of my grandfather pursuing a prized watermelon rolling across the Canebière through whizzing bullets (though this might be appropriated by Hollywood). But I cannot quite reconstruct from these how WWII might have been different for a 13 year old as she grew up, got credentialized as a “steno-dactylo” and started working in a bureaucracy as she met her future husband. It is not only that her experiences changed but that she had to change herself given both the changes in her body and social positions, but also in the challenges that the evolution of the war confronted her with.
These reflections were triggered by a student conducting research on the parents of a school in New Jersey. She started the work in September 2020, having laid the ground work through the summer and its various uncertainties. By November she became concerned as what to do when, sometimes in October, regulations about schooling changed. There had been some versions on “on-site” schooling, with the attendant questions about safety, etc. And then that was stopped by the State. This paralleled what was happening in New York City: for parents of school age children, for the children, and for the teachers, “Corona” kept changing the challenges they were all facing. Whatever they had “learned” under the preceding version of the regulations kept getting obsolete, or at least in need of revision.
I now advise students conducting research under Corona to focus on the changes that every one has to endure from the moment when a local governor impose certain types of restrictions, to the changes in these restrictions, to overheard debates as to what other governors are doing, to direct experiences when the decease catches family or neighbor in its own multiple ways (from a close relative who test positive for the antibodies, thereby suggesting that he had gone through the disease in some past, while another relative dies over a few days). Each of these experiences, as they might be told or observed by an anthropologist, should not lead to hypotheses about what a participant may have “learned” about Corona. Rather it should be treated as evidence for what people can do at any particular moment, thereby shedding some light on the various “ages” of Corona for that population. As I have experienced it myself, and as I have been told, when and how to “distance” oneself is never settled, even in close-knit groups. “Bubbles” expand or retract in response to changes in personal lives, or what one hears about what other people are doing. Every solution to the problem is little more than another tool or material for the further deliberations.
In the famous allegory of the elephant and the blind men, the elephant does not move, grow up, or die while the men deliberate about what it is to be. The “organism” metaphor that seemed to work so well to think about “social structures” (or “systemic organization”) had just the same problem: the “organism” did not evolve or die. Latour’s ANT is in similar danger if one does not recognize that nodes in the network die out while others pop-up, each creating new constraints and possibilities for many in linked nodes. As I have argued in other ways, Corona, as human on-going production, is to be approached as alive and evolving through the difficult deliberations of the governors among themselves and through the deliberations of the many affected by what these governors decide.Print This Post