Experiencing life and constructing a local “next”

If a “lived experience” is one that one has, personally, experienced, then I have never experienced COVID (the virus). I have experienced Corona (the cultural epoch) but, to the extent that I have never been sick from the virus, and have not even ever tested positive (so far?), then the virus is something I only know through conversational and textual means: I have talked a lot about it with many people. I have read a lot about it. And I have written about it. I have experienced the pressure to explain myself when (not) wearing a mask. In contrast, these past few months I (lived) experienced open heart surgery or, more precisely, the weeks leading up to it, and the recuperation after it: anesthesia does make it impossible to experience the surgery itself!

Various authorities requested that I be tested and this has happened such a number of times that I have lost count. Those requests (actually orders) concern, in my analysis, Corona as cultural fact. As for the virus, I’d say that my experience is, at most, “vicarious” or, in jargon, “entextualized.” I do know people who had close relatives who died. I do know people who were seriously sickened. I also know people who tested positive and showed (“experienced”?) no symptoms. But this “knowledge” is conversational—that is I was told about these cases but did not have to deal with them personally

I have, probably, been lucky (as well as possible privileged for having had access to vaccines and boosters as soon as they became available). But this kind of luck (escaping sickness and experience of the sick) opens an interesting question: what is the “next” step a person so lucky may take when confronted with any aspect of Corona (as the entextualization/institutionalization of COVID)? This question imposed itself as I drove out of Manhattan across the United States to Palo Alto and back. Once I crossed the Hudson, and until I entered Silicon Valley, masks all but disappeared—except when I traversed the Navajo Nation where large signs told people to mask up. I saw workers in one motel wear a mask. Sometimes one employee among several did. I am not sure I saw any in the various Walmarts I entered. This will not surprised those who read opinion pieces in papers like the New York Times: people in red states are said to be opinionated and fed false information about the virus. This may be true but it may ignore the possibility that many (most?) people in the United States have actually never directly experienced the virus.  One might perhaps say that there are people for whom the virus is not a “lived experience.”  In probably not so few cases, their lived experience may have been such as to settle on other next steps (mandate this or that) than what some/many might take.  Many may summarize their “lived” experience of the virus the way Eric Adams, NYC’s current mayor, once did: “I feel fine, outside of the raspy voice, I feel fine. No fevers, … I’m not tired, no aches or pains at all” (April 11, 2022). Reading this may give some a vicarious experience of what it is like to live the virus and, not irrationally, make them decide to continue disregard some mandates that appear overdrawn.

The problem for those responsible with public health (including budding applied anthropologists) is what to do with situations when the lived experience of the people, as they may themselves actually en-textualize it in local conversations with direct consociates, contradict the message as designed. “Wear a mask to protect yourself and your loved one at risk” maybe a fully appropriate injunction, but it will always be placed within broader local conversations that, in the many cases I experienced while driving across the United States, lead to people not acting on the injunction. As all teachers actually do know, most students do not act on what they teach them and not only because the students are not “learning.” As I like argue, people do learn but they also analyze and criticize that which they have learned… whether because they suspect the teacher, or because that which is taught contradicts their (lived) experience, or because they know the teacher is wrong (as keeps happening in (post-)colonial encounters with alternate “local knowledges”).

The broader issue here, and one that perhaps should become the main one, is whether facing to “lived experience” may make one doubt any explanation of behavior that relies on hypotheses about “dispositions acquired early in life” (habitus). What if what I will do next is best investigated by checking what I lived (and possibly learned) a few minutes ago (rather than decades ago)? That I speak French (but not Chinese and about any of the languages human beings have devised) has to do with my being born and raised in France. When I sign retirement papers has much more to do with what my current local “others” will make me experience in the near future.

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