This post was originally intended as a bare-bones response to Bruno Latour’s challenge to list hopes for change emerging out of the coronavirus crisis, but ended up being prefaced by a preamble on my difficulties with writing and a reflection on my current context.
For quite some time, I have suffered (and I use the word advisedly) from the realisation that anything I have to say has already been said – and often far better by someone else. As an academic trained in the best traditions of high modernism, this incapacity to maintain a position at the forefront of the bleeding edge avant-garde has a stifling effect, muzzling one into a helpless silence. It is a recipe for endless disappointment, as one finds, in an overpopulated public forum, that one seemingly brilliant idea after another has already been articulated by someone else. Added to this is that other Enlightenment ideal that knowledge and expertise will somehow provide the solution to every problem. Things are in reality far more ambiguous. There is also the expectation, for a certain type of intellectual at least, that one must speak with the voice of truth, be a prophet in the wilderness, a sign and inspiration to all. These modernist and pre-modernist imperatives haunt the edges of every attempt at publication, like the ghastly phantom presence of some long forgotten and unmourned ancestor.
This latter pretension was taken to task by Michel Foucault who criticised the notion that intellectuals should speak as the universal voice for all and offer a guiding light to the collective road ahead. His own towering figure and monumental work was of course a thorough contradiction of his words, but they are words that at least point to a possible path for others. The radically non-didactic and inclusive tenor of his investigations also offers an open invitation to pursue a myriad of directions far removed from his original concerns.
Perhaps, as Foucault suggests again, all one can do is speak from the standpoint of one’s own inquiries and experience, hoping to find connections with others, however slight. Perhaps merely adding another voice to the collective discussion that is human existence, another voice with all its subtle nuances of individual difference, might just be that barely perceptible shade, that trifle, that helps another to clarify their own point of view. Perhaps, in the end, that’s all that’s needed – that tentative shred of hope that other connections can be made no matter how obscure and fleeting.
Bruno Latour proposes: “a little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lockdown just as they were before.” This is in the form of inviting responses to a list of questions. He has also set up an online platform to facilitate these responses. He specifies: “This exercise is not a question of expressing an opinion but of describing your situation and what you may be investigating.” Latour also suggests that this might be a tentative contribution to a networked discussion – fragments of ideas to share and to discuss that might eventually and gradually find an embodied form through communication – friendly or otherwise – with others.
Essentially, he is inviting people to make a list of their hopes for change in a context that paradoxically in this time of physical lockdowns, has become a lot more fluid, more open to the possibility of real change. And of course all of this comes – as so often in human history – at an immense cost to people’s lives, health and well-being.
So, I am going to try out some of my own fragmentary responses to Latour’s invitation, tweaking them for my own purposes. This is very much from the perspective of my own lived experience – not a theorised or even a practical position – but it is most certainly and unapologetically opinionated. These are semi-formed thoughts on the go, an invitation to others to share their own perhaps better formed questions and proposals. And of course, it is entirely possible in this rapidly evolving situation that my own answers will be very different tomorrow.
To give these reflections a concrete physical context: I am an academic working in a large university in Queensland, Australia. Australia is in a more than privileged position in the current crisis – for now at least. It has been able to leverage the fact that it is a remote island continent with borders that can be sealed from the rest of the world. It is also a wealthy country with ample space and pleasant weather. (But it does need to be said that at the beginning of February 2020, 13.6% of the population was living below the poverty line. That percentage is set to increase. The higher education sector, where I am placed is also in trouble.) So for all the self-congratulatory rhetoric of various pundits in relation to Australia’s (so far) efficient management of the crisis, circumstances and the specificities of geography and history have played a central role.
These are of course, very early days and the future is uncertain. Lockdown restrictions at the time of writing are easing by slow increments. Strangely, the stepdown is inducing an even more uncertain feeling of limbo as the reality dawns that it will be up to individuals – no longer the government – to strategise in relation to their own future safety. Globally, we tread in uncharted territory with enormous suffering being the price to pay for having ignored for so long all the warning signs counselling against the march of untrammeled greed, self interest and the exploitation of both human and non-human.
Prior to this crisis, I had the sense of waiting for something; marking time, straining ahead towards an increasingly narrow horizon; locked down in a joyless prison of the overwhelming expectations of performativity within a tightly regulated neoliberal framework. It is a personal perception that has been slowly dissipating during this crisis. My sense now is of having the present restored – a present not constrained by the rigid dictates of past or future, a present not locked down and with an open uncertain vista ahead. But it is a fragile present and one can only hope that the prison doors don’t slam shut again. It’s with this in mind that I’m addressing the questions Latour proposes. My responses are in no particular order, encompassing the very local as well as the very global with no expectation, as I said earlier, that my responses will be the same tomorrow.
Question 1: What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed?
This is my list.
- The extraordinarily oppressive system of anonymous student evaluations of teaching in universities. Due to the fact the university has had to unilaterally move most of its courses online, it has suspended these evaluations for this academic year.
- Everybody endlessly rushing around in a frenetic circuit of work, performative leisure activities, constant movement through space with no time to appreciate the immediate environment, to enjoy the everyday, to pause to spend unstructured time with others.
- A joyless, regulated existence in the workplace and in everyday life – with a relentless performative drive aimed at reducing uncertainty and risk at every turn while promoting dubious measures of “growth”, “impact” and “productivity”. All of this leaving widespread unhappiness, illness, machine noise, air pollution and the ever more efficient destruction of vegetation, animal life and landscape in its wake.
- The enormous and obsessive fixation on real estate property and its value and enhancement through an ongoing cycle of renovation.
- Heavily mediatised and overpaid spectator sport and the 2020 Olympics.
Question 2: Describe why you think this activity is harmful/ superfluous/ dangerous/inconsistent and how its disappearance/suspension/substitution would make the activities you favor easier/ more consistent.
- In the performative ideology that has increasingly permeated every nook and cranny of existence, the convenient belief has been that anonymous feedback systems of surveillance are needed to ensure professionals do a good job. The way I am teaching has not changed during this suspension (apart from going online), but I find that without the cloud of prospective evaluations hanging over my head, a dreary weight of drudgery and oppression has lifted. There is a welcome sensation of space for freedom and enjoyment in my interactions with students. Enforced evaluations haven’t always existed. The thought of having to go back to that crushing, joyless, soul-destroying disciplinary regime feels like sandpaper against the skin.
- People taking their time and staying in place rather than endlessly performing and rushing around has removed a degree of exhausted frenzy from the atmosphere. Unfortunately a degree of frenzied performance appears to be creeping back in – if the constant parade of determined walkers, exercisers and picnickers in every available urban park is any indication.
- I would like to see more respect and recognition for both the human and the non-human. This had been steadily decreasing in the suspended system. The treatment of all beings and entities whether living or not with respect, rather than as disposable tools aimed at increasing a mythical “growth”, should be the goal. I would like to see the recognition of human and biological rhythms, not a spiraling servitude to the machine rhythms of computers and associated systems . Another hope is for the creation of networks amongst existences that are not hierarchical and managerial. I would like to see a future that is not locked down but open to possibilities – even if these are not risk free, with a recognition that human existence is risky by definition, at the same time being careful to emphasise that this is not a risk that should be taken at others’ expense.
- Housing should be shelter not an investment. Relaxing, comfortable, spacious and beautiful shelters for all, at an affordable price, built and functioning in harmony with the non-human (plants, animals and landscape) would be the ideal. I would also like to see the return and growth of programs of innovative public and social housing.
- Just to address the local sports scene: I don’t miss the marketing, financial and ideological juggernaut that is spectator sport: heavily mediatised, financially dubious, with its constant and tedious ‘boys will be boys’ sex, drugs, money and other scandals in the Australian football codes (mainly rugby league and Australian rules) and its dominance of the news and media programming. Nor do I miss the jingoistic, non-inclusive national identity mythmaking attached to these sports. I would like to see a lot less money go into this sector and its decoupling from notions of national identity and newsworthiness.
- (5a) Likewise, the Olympics represents an enormous financial burden on the host country, often at the expense of the already poor and is arguably a competition to see who has the best methods for concealing performance enhancing drugs. The twentieth century imperatives and ideologies that resurrected and refashioned the elite Ancient Greek tradition of the Olympics are no longer current and interest has been declining for a number of years now. I would suggest that the world no longer needs the Olympics.
Question 3: What measures do you recommend to ensure that the workers/employees/agents/entrepreneurs who will no longer be able to continue in the activities you are removing are helped in their transition toward other activities.
I would like to include all members of the social body in this question. My answers are simple in the abstract, complex in the practical implementation.
- My first answer is a universal basic income – not partial but universal. No exceptions. By universal income, I mean a model that allocates a subsistence income to every single adult citizen, one that is paid for by the tax system. This income would act as a safety net for individuals during times of individual and social crisis. Job earnings would be paid on top of this untaxed basic income.
- My second answer is a free education for all. And by free education, I mean open and non-fee paying access to an education that is not tied to social distinction and galloping credentialism.
- Thirdly, targeted programs and funding for setting up systems and practices which aim for a harmonious balance of how we live and cooperate with our natural environment and with the non-human entities on the planet.
Question 4: Which of the now suspended activities would you like to develop/resume or even create from scratch?
- A well-funded arts sector and the encouragement for everybody to take part in amateur expressions of art and culture.
- Universities as well-funded and well-respected high end education and research institutions, with the humanities and theoretical social and physical sciences in addition to the perceived more ‘useful’ sectors of applied science and vocational studies to be held in high regard by the entire social body. These institutions need not be large and I would like to see them decoupled from mechanisms of social distinction and credentialism.
- The time and spaces for relaxed human sociability, even if we do have to live with ‘social distancing’ for quite some time to come.
Question 5: Describe why this activity seems positive to you and how it makes it easier/ more harmonious/ consistent with other activities that you favor and helps to combat those that you consider unfavorable.
- Humans are unable to thrive without the arts and spiritual practices of all kinds. These are the things that give life meaning and joy. Why has there been the expectation that they can somehow continue to exist without material support for those who produce these things? There is also too much of a disparity between the few artists who do extraordinarily well and the majority who live hand to mouth.
- High-level research needs to continue to warn people of social and environmental dangers, to promote social and individual well-being, to explore and expand the limits of human experience and open people’s eyes to the enormous expanse of all the networks, human and non-human, that we interact with. This research should be seen as a public good and funded as such.
- The answer is obvious here, humans need to support and be supported by other humans.
Question 6: What measures do you recommend to help workers/ employees/ agents/ entrepreneurs acquire the capacities/ means/ income/ instruments to take over/ develop/ create this favored activity.
Short and sharp here. See question 3. A universal basic income and free education for all.
This whole crisis, painful and destructive as so many elements of it are, is an invitation to begin again (to borrow Foucault’s phrase), to reconfigure, start and renew positive discussions and collaborations, no matter how modest and tentative these initiatives are at the outset. My hopes are manifestly more than a little Utopian, but no-one ever got anywhere by thinking small. And of course, we always need to bear in mind the warning and proviso that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.
With thanks to Peter Johnson on the Heterotopian Studies site for the link to Bruno Latour’s framework.