Discover more from living together, somehow
What did we catch during the pandemic, and how are we to catch what we've caught?
lived experiences of polycrisis, seen via our phones as holding power, compelling presence, controlling absence
Something happened to us during the pandemic. Many things, indeed. We don’t really yet know the toll of the pandemic in its fullness, for whom the toll tolled, and how. We may never. We ‘know’ it killed anywhere between 6.9 to 30.1 million people1: a huge toll and a huge margin of t|error. This was some kind of war.
What we also don’t yet have a sense of, yet, is the burden of the pandemic, in all its uneveness. I leave aside the complex disease burden, including long covid, which continues to roll on and accumulate.
Rather, as someone practising hypagnogic social theory, I wonder: how are we still burdened by the pandemic? What did covid 19 do to ‘us’ in our relations with one another? What did the pandemic do to relationality?
Somehow, the way we’re to live together shifted, somehow. ‘Subtly, each aircraft is different’. Subtly, and also not so subtly, we were changed by what we experienced (though: did we learn anything? I return to this).
I raise this wondering in light of the desire I’ve been looking at throughout May. If our desires are no coincidence, if, as Douglas says, “our deepest fears and desires take expression with a kind of witty aptness”, what kinds of wanting and aversion, what kinds of craving and recoil have been intensified by the pandemic? Why do we want this? Why this now? What are we getting that we’re not wanting; and what are wanting that we’re not getting? For me (and for you!) and certainly in this blog this ricochets across the supply chain, into our darkest nooks and deepest crannies; it is an extensive and intensive craving and yearning, the Bermuda Drain of the hissing cessy whirlpool of samsara.
& like: was covid a trigger, a cause, or some kind of ‘FX’ plug in that fucked with the chain in a way that modulated and distorted the signal until it became something unrecognisably else, or just amplified it? We say ‘in vino veritas’ – as so many of us were drinking excessively during the pandemic lockdowns – is there also a kind of truth-in-covid that we’ve missed, a truth that was activated but already there? Were there things laying dormant that were set in motion, like seeds in dry soil given some kind of water in the darkness, like cicadas lying in the earth for decades who, on the basis of some trigger, ‘know’ to come forth together in a certain concerted, disconcerting, discordant concert?
I raise this wondering also in light of an acknowledgment of the diffuse ‘we’ that comprises us as a global community of fate now: that (sorry, but...) it is us, and no one but us, only all of us, no one but the lonely people around us on the bus, that have to do these next few decades now. That have to do this now with an imperfect a set of tools and groups, haveto deal with the debounded effects boomeranging back at us in unpredictable sequences and combinations. And remember the boomerang scene from Mad Max Two; somehow this community of fate has to catch those kinds of boomerangs, it’s a Toys R US that has those kind of boomerangs ‘in store’ for us.
Summarising-adding last week’s summary, re-framed as community of fate: given also a general set of involutions and breakdowns, wherein: work is breaking down, ecologies are breaking down, finance capitalism is breaking down, the US and Europe and China might be breaking down (while AI is waking up?), and we – the community of fate – make it up as it’s breaking down, al the while to differing extents living trapped in servile service economies serviced by the overstretched global supply chain, that giant Rube Goldberg Machine designed to give us dopamine spurts until we hit ‘insufficient fun(d)s’.
What did the pandemic do to us ‘in’ this?
How can we catch a Mad Max boomerang while scrolling on our increasingly huge phones?
Could we google a how to and watch a YouTube video with someone trying this; would this take us to the ‘epic fails of Mad Max boomerangs’ feed instead?
This would be a wandering wondering aloud about polycrisis as lived experience.
Well, what then, I wonder? (with the pandemic in mind... what is its burden for us... what do we now have to try to learn to catch, given that we caught covid?)
I have to stay on the level of the seeming, and keep seeing the seeming from my own observer position. In other words, I think it’s impossible to generalise and totalise such a complex global experience. But here goes...
My own perspective is a Melbourne-patterned style of middle class first world covid whose hallmarks were contoured around protection from the following. I was not exposed to mass death events in the absence of a vaccine; I did not have to work in an overwhelmed hospital; I did not have to continue working in an abattoir, or even start. All I had to do was continue my cushioned life – and my three children’s lives – in my neighbourhood and my house, on and off, on instruction of the state government2, for a couple of years, give or take. In my own terms, I was a Deliveree.
I also had some Deliveroo aspects, 2020-1; I had to hustle, but hustle in my house. I had to deliver for my children, insofar as I also had to work as a primary school teacher for two of them. Deliverwhile*: conducting my own surreal job using a laptop and an internet connection. My experience of the pandemic was mortal safety, material comfort, and mild chronic social and cultural deprivation – not ‘disruption’ but actually the suspension of the ambient social for two years, basically. It was a safe, surreal, disquieting experience. It was prolonged and unpleasant, but ultimately bearable, and nothing like what hundreds of millions of people faced. Back to Gibson’s refrain:
‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’.
It was very interesting to me that comedians at this year’s Comedy Festival – back on song, with no masks and no trepidation – were very actively joking about some of this experience, and that they got laughs. The latter shows us we’re still turning this all over, unconsciously, and in many ways still repressing this experience, not yet quite reckoning with it.
Did you hear the one…
What happened when the psychoanalyst had her trousers dry cleaned?
They were returned repressed.
One of the things I buy ‘off the rack’ from Freud is
trousers the relation between remembering and repeating, and the necessity of working through. Read it for yourself. If it’s a cliché now, remember that – like Raymond Chandler for noir – Freud wrote the cliché.
That which we fail to remember with our minds and our mouths, we repeat (compulsively) with our hands and feet (although ‘talk is cheap’, and ‘actions speak louder than words’, and, somehow, Extreme’s ‘More than Words’).
We act out what we keep failing to reckon with
What goes in our senses gets cogged and buried in minds, then comes out later in our unthinking actions: there’s delayed effect, nachträglichkeit. This means that a lot of what we ‘do’ is not yet quite ‘action’ (in Weber’s sense3) but still reaction, or somnambulism (Broch’s primary thesis).
As for our objects (and our mothers were our first objects) we see something before us in the present but do not act toward it, because we see in the present object a thing from our past which we are still reactively recoiling from, because it traumatised us in a way that formed us.
+ the lost object really is lost
Psychoanalysis teaches us a basic confusion we all have between inside and outside, past and present, object and subject – and a proper remedy for this is remembering and working through.
Old jokes home part two:
A war veteran returns from the hardware store one sunny saturday afternoon4.
Their partner asks them: how was Bunnings?
They quiver with rage, crazy vein standing on their head:
You don’t know, because *you* weren’t there.
thinking over the past five years as a ‘vintage’ tinged with its own polycrisis, it’s sociologically interesting and unsurprising how we became routinised to each reality. Atop this, how we are now ‘not there’ where we were, how we’ve forgotten. How quickly we forget, how efficiently we repress.
In 2019-20 our family became routinised, that summer holidays, to not going out with the kids, because of bushfire smoke.
In 2020, we became routinised to living under lockdown, to the necessity of avoiding proximity, and contact, to wearing masks to avoid facial contact. We wore homemade masks while walking down empty streets at night.
In 2021, Melburnians became routinised to the suppression of rage and resentment while continuing to live lockdown as a shitty sequel to 2020.
In 2022, we emerged from these routines into the uncertain light of the world, not quite knowing when to mask, but (in my circle) in a context where most people were masking, had very deep social anxiety, were extremely tired by social contact.
Now, in 2023, we have become re-routinised to the same carbon-intensive patterns we unreflexively indulged in as a proxy for the good life, enjoying VaporSpace and comedy festivals and longhaul travel, while continuing to repress ‘all of the above’.
I think that, as a society, we have learned nothing from the pandemic.
This is a sad summative truth. As WH Auden wrote
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
At the same time – and I can only speak for Melbourne here – we
were are traumatised by it. It marked and marred us in a lot of subtle ways, many of which are difficut to convey to those who didn’t live through it, most of which we expressly do not talk about, because it is unpleasant to mention, because we want to ‘get on with our lives’.
This is where the phone enters as the unwitting Mad Max boomerang we have to catch sight of ourselves catching.
Many of us use our phones as a way of soothing anxiety, controlling absence, and compelling controllable presence5.
What’s the burden of not catching ourselves catching ourselves with our phones, constantly, for like several hours a day?
One of the concrete things I notice is that a lot of people in Melbourne seem to be more avoidant than they used to, and tend to use their phones to practise this avoidance.
This is the paradox of the phone as a social technology, as a technology of communication, connection. We use it to get and bring ‘almost anything’ to us, anything our heart desires; also use it as an effective tool of keeping people from us, and of shelving, icing, or disposing of people when they’ve ceased to serve us. When we want, we scroll and text and click, and it comes direct to our ding dong. When we ‘can’t even’, our phones are also fantastic ways of enforcing absence, shutting people up, shutting people down, shunning and ghosting. This too has become a totally normal way to deal.
Engaging in these prevalent uses of phones, habitually, has burdened us collectively, in ways that are going to make it harder to deal with one another in polycrisis, because of polycrisis. It takes us further and further from the horizon offered by Solnit (I nearly typed Solnit Green) in her work on the communities that form during disasters.
I want to return and dotpoint/post on each of the above ‘compelling’ uses of phones as magic control wands (next post), because I think they create serious obstacles standing between us and one another, and work very strongly in favour of maintaining the dominance of the Tech Giants, and support the fantasy of the sovereign as consumer, waving her wand according to her whim.
But before that and to frame it, I want to move toward a conclusion by sharing an observation of what happened to me at the pub last week, because I think it gets us to the edge of this realm in a way that is quotidian, banal, everyday, ordinary.
There we were, a work group, gathering to celebrate-commiserate the end of semester.
On the table was a perspex Q code, the kind that attaches to a menu that allows a customer to be served at their table6. To me, this whole getup was an arguable necessity during pandemic conditions. Very often, it was a ton more work than speaking and order to a human – slower, shittier, more surveillant, more carbon intensive – which can be done safely by setting up the physics of workplaces sensibly.
Strictly speaking, Q code ordering is an excrescence: the socio-techical solution to the socio-culturo-pandemic question no one was quite asking. At the ‘end’ of the current pandemic (as a social fact), we no longer require this set up for any reason. And yet, it is now durably there, drilled in to the table top in a spill and spray-proof way that invites its use as first option, new default setting.
When many of my colleagues noticed it, they used it. I asked them, and they indicated they preferred to use it than go to the bar. Perhaps it’s just me as someone who likes to ‘go to the bar’ (and avoids automated checkouts so I can interact with the human check out operator) but it’s this last bit that I’m most curious about – y tho.
But sticking with the premises and what we can presume about them before getting to this concluding reflection, typically it remains there because business owners paid a ton of money to a third party for its installation (probably with government monies during covid, which is an interesting ‘hidden’ use of taxpayers’ money). Presumably, the third-party shares back some of the data analytics it reaps, or at any rate, retailers and providers are in some kind of symbiotic relation with one another, or it’s that the Q code thing is now ‘offered’ as part of a whole containerised made in China point-of-sale system that proprietors have bought off the rack.
Collectively though, we need to notice that this affordance has become mandatory (making phone use effectively mandatory), and this happened without any public debate or widespread critical knowledge of who owns it, how it works, where the data goes, and who benefits from this. In security and technology studies, the tendency of opt-in affordances to later become mandatory, and then for their functions and data to be re-purposed for something never directly intended, is called function creep. It’s an important concept, because pretty much everything that happens with the securitisation of technology – (eg) airport security – including biometrics, is subject to function creep, and, in turn, nearly all of these evolved, iterated mandatory procedures-functions also harmonises with the power/knowledge, interests and perspectives of US-style and Xina-style surveillance capitalism. I may come back to this in another post, cos there’s a huge amount one could say about it all, but let’s stick with sticking the landing of this post’s purpose of trying to pinpoint the ‘something that happened to us’ during the pandemic, such that we became much more avoidant, by using these ostensibly social-communication technologies, our phones.
The context in this pub was very clear: there was no queue at the bar, and for those who did queue, intead of Q, there was an easy-to-get 15% staff discount. The discount *was* available via the Q-activated app, but of the several of my colleagues using it, only one had figured out how to make the app do that thing (it wasn’t obvious or self explanatory). The four other colleague data points I collected indicated they were shrug-happy-resigned to pay the 15% for the ‘convenience’ of using the app.
My sense is that, deep down, we’ve become habituated to a preference for phone-mediated transactionality. The reasons for this are subtle and complex, and the counterfactual to mention is that using the phone in the context just described enables us to stay in the conversation, and to not have to get up or go anywhere to get our drink. Q and you get table service. And this in a place where table service is only offered to those who Q.
But my sense is is that there’s something beyond pragmatics that gets us toward a glimmer of what the pandemic has burdened us with, by way of our phones. Something hard to catch.
Firstly, the phone affords us controllable desire we can own. There is something deeeeeeply wandlike about using the interface in this way, the magic of waving up something in a way that feels like you didn’t quite pay for, yet that magically appears. Sometimes we ourselves forget: did anyone order a negroni? And then no one owns the negroni, for a few seconds, until the person remembers that they did, only five minutes ago. This literally never happens when you order and pay for a drink at the bar, and that’s subtle and worth noticing.
Alongside this, one is placing oneself in the position of the ‘Deliveree’, activating a local end of the global supply chain in a way that compels a ‘Deliveroo’ to come hither, bring the thing, then leave. This is totally the comfort zone for groups of people who negotiated their needs and appetites via their phones for the past five years. This speaks to habit and dependency, and the comforts thereunto. If you’re Q-ing to order chips, notice that you’re also Q-ing for the comfort of comfort food.
More deeply, I feel like holding the phone, having it in one’s hand, is a holding power (see the PowerGlove, above), to use Turkle’s phrase. Holding the phone, interacting through it in an effective controlling way, has become deeply comforting to us and comfortable for us.
We need to notice the entrenching of dependence with each use here, as well as how it’s encouraging the kind of underfunctioning – which Uber’s business model relies on – I picked up on when I was looking at Uber Eats. We have become the unpreppers, because we hold in our hand a cybernetic Swiss Army Knife that can even order us up a real Swiss Army Knife, given that we forgot to bring the one we already have.
Moreover, abdjuring queueing for Q-ing means we don’t have to exchange eye contact, verbal language, or currency with the ‘Deliveree’. Using the phone does things to people, it makes them appear and behave in a certain way, according to certain norms: even if they’re ‘the same people’ we would talk to at the bar. Are we not avoiding seeing and noticing the labour of those who labour, avoiding facing the labour of shit jobs, and respecting those who do such work by way of eye contact, please and thank you? I think so.
And so, finally, Q-ing means we are avoiding the sociality of social contact, and above all those uncontrollable aspects of any social contact beyond those ‘contained’ by the app and platform (while giving all power and data over to said platform &c *&c).
What have we caught in our hands, what are we caught in, and how does this burden us? (and what burdens are we holding, such that we need comfort food and can’t bear social contact that is uncontrollable, spontaneous, could go anywhere, has no mask?)
We are now less able to speak to one another, less able to interact in ordinary ways with strangers, let alone engage in small talk, banter, flirting, and cruising (all of which, to me, were the positive and exciting aspects of metropolitan life). Simmel’s metro-constitutive fear of touching has been elevated to the post-covid reality of a fear of interacting, at the horizon of which we elect ourselves into a world of divas and Emperors who are not allowed to be looked at, gazed upon, or directly addressed by those who serve them7. It’s amazing how, at this late and maybe terminal stage of capitalism, our comfort and desire for control is conjuring up these strange vestiges of sovereignty and feudalism. Until we hit insufficient fun(d)s, until the battery runs out.
Desire is no coincidence. This is what we want, these are prevalent preferences, ‘after’ the pandemic; why do we want this?
https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/coronavirus-excess-deaths-estimates I think the thing is: no one knows… which is fucked… and tells you a lot… but the link indicates we know it’s apt to be MUCH higher than the official-quoted 6.9 million, which is already 6.9 million.
For those outside Australia, jurisdiction for most government functions is state to state (the states actually do most of the governing-as-provisioning and regulating) while the federal government, like-and-unlike the US, is a federal government with national jurisdiction… what ‘we’ learned here is that each state adopted radically different approaches, according to the vagaries of its elected officials, but also in ways that were socio-cultural and revealed the deep social fact that each state was a colony, each colony had its own idiosyncratic modus operandi, and that the federation is there just to harmonise and limit things, and doesn’t have a substantive reason for being in a way that the states did/do as a real lived experience (in turn heavily patterned by urban/suburban/rural/regional/remote vibes). This is *very* different to the way the New Zealand government was a ‘thing’ that could order people to do things; states do that here, and they did so really differently, really culturally.
Weber gives the example of two cyclists. If each clocks the other and they mutually change course by exchanging those not-quite-conscious momentary signals we do, that is ‘social action’. If a cyclist hits a pedestrian cos one or the other failed to clock, this is not ‘social action’. I should say: Weber set a lot of store by it, it was vague, it’s debatable what constitutes an action, and, in a sense, this birthed Parson's’ functionalism, the insufficiency/trap of which birthed the systems theories of Habermas and Luhmann, which abandon the idea of an action-centred sociology as a ‘bad idea’. Yes, and; there’s still something to it, it happens every day.
For the sake of this blog, let’s add: they’re a homeowner and have a really nice home in, I dunno, Castlecrag, which they’ve owned since 1995. This also means they own another house in, I dunno, Mittagong.
over the past five years, and I’ve posted this before, the phone has been like Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who's there
And you're all alone
Flesh and bone
By the telephone
Lift up the receiver
I'll make you a believer
I will deliver
You know I'm a forgiver
Reach out, touch faith
Provided they’re willing to give their personal details, do the data entry, and have their data scraped by some kinds of undeclared third parties. The one that shits me to no end is the mandatory collection of email addresses, after which I’m always added by default to some kind of promo marketing list. Of course, unsubscribe, but then: who else did they sell it too. Of course, give an old dead hotmail address or whatever, but like: what a shitty practice and what an annoying thing to do over and over because of some norms established by programmers working in another internet in another century.
In the previous generation, it was only the likes of Prince who could get away with that kind of malarkey, as the ‘ham’ scene in Spinal Tap parodies so well.