Wednesday, 24 June 2020

July 4th, Otherwise: A National Day of Mourning and Memory

On 27th May 2020, Spain announced the start of a period of national mourning to commemorate those who lost their lives to coronavirus. It lasted for 10 days.

Flags were lowered to half mast as the Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez announced that it would be the '...longest period of mourning in our democracy, in which we will all express our sorrow and pay homage to those who have died.'

I've been waiting for a while now for the UK government to announce something similar. With the death toll continuing to rise (official figures now well past 40,000, although remember - we don't  count all deaths. 60,000 is probably more like it) we have the highest death rate in Europe.  Meanwhile, our prime minister announces the inevitable end of lockdown for economic reasons, Rishi Sunak tweets that he can't wait to go to the pub, and Matt Hancock states delightedly that 'our plan is working' whilst simultaneously failing to ever know how many people are actually being tested.

(By the way, it's ok to be simultaneously happy that the economy is starting up again and frustrated that no acknowledgement of Covid-19 deaths has taken place; the two things aren't mutually exclusive).

Poppies in a Whitley field
Memorialisation is important.  If we're not careful we can fall into a pattern of 'collective forgetting', whereby we minimise the impact ('it wasn't actually that bad!'), allow ourselves to have this forgetting done for us by the State ('it's over people, let's go to the pub!') or become immune to the impact of increasing numbers because we simply cannot picture the scale of lives lost.  (For more on the ethics of collective memory please read this fantastic blog by Anders Sandberg).

How we mourn and memorialise is up to us, of course. The impact will be felt differently depending on our relationship to Covid-19 and how it has affected our loved ones and communities.  It may be that we spend time documenting or journalling our thoughts and facts about what happened (lest we forget). We might want to do something creative; write a poem, paint a picture, compose a piece of music. We might want to talk about someone we lost, perhaps record an oral history. We might want to remember in the pub of course! That's ok too.  The Dutch philosopher Spinoza talked about having an ethics of joy and affirmation; the belief that we can take pain and transform it into knowledge in order to live better lives in the future. I'd love your ideas about how you'd choose to memorialise - perhaps we can share them and create a collective digital memorial? Perhaps you're already doing something and would like to share it? Please comment on this blog if you would like to, and let's make it happen.

Remembering is our moral duty.  One of the hopeful things to emerge from the pandemic was the rise of community action, mutual aid and the sight of people coming together informally, without waiting for state intervention. 

If the government won't hold a day of national mourning, let's do it ourselves. That's how I will be spending July 4th. Fancy joining me?

Monday, 6 April 2020

Towards an ethics of joy

''She discovered with great delight that one does not love one's children just because they are one's children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.''

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I recently returned to this book, wanting to read something that resonated with the strange, other-worldliness of a time of pandemic. Marquez's writing is beautiful and evocative, but the story (as I remembered, coming back to it) is a little problematic. Nevertheless the quote above stood out for me as a kind of theme tune for my experiences so far during lockdown.  I am spending a huge amount of time with my two girls (10 and 12) and it is no understatement to say that just these past three weeks have radically changed my relationship with them. I'm lucky that they are of an age where friendship is possible; we can support each other, laugh together, be silly or just hang-out (when they want me to, that is). Whilst I know they are still very young, it is true to say that they are supporting me as much as I am supporting them.

So it's a strange time to be writing about joy, and also the perfect time. 

Joy is different from happiness; it speaks of moments rather than a state of being, and of the soul, rather than the mind. It requires noticing, and attention to be paid. If the current crisis is teaching me anything, it is that it is pointless striving for long periods of being 'happy' and that instead it is better to spend time spotting and savouring those often fleeting seconds when you suddenly feel joy bubble up, endorphins hitting the bloodstream like a hit of nicotine or alcohol (yes, I take joy from those things too :)

Me, attempting to dance with Oti Mabuse
The Dutch philosopher Spinoza wrote extensively on affirmative ethics as a practice of joy, whereby you firstly pay attention to the things that promote physical and mental well-being (of yourself and others - which may include non-humans).  As Rosi Braidotti states 'A joyful ethics rests on an enlarged sense of a vital inter-connection with a multitude of others by removing the obstacle of self-centred individualism and anthropocentricism on one hand, and the barriers of negativity on the other. ' (2018, p.221).

Affirmative ethics doesn't refuse to acknowledge pain, but suggests we use knowledge to transform it into something positive. In the context of coronavirus, this could mean allowing ourselves to feel pain and grieve, while also taking time to reflect and learn from what the pandemic is telling us. It requires a cognitive step which de-personalises the crisis in order to 'transform its negative charge' (difficult, of course), noticing negative emotions of pain, anger, greed and fear.' (ibid., p.222). To be affirmative is therefore about firstly noticing, and then taking action, riding on the back of a wave of 'potensia' energy; the kind of power that comes from natural and bodily forces rather than the static power of organisations and hierarchies. It asks - what can this joy teach me, and how can I generate more from this moment? How can we use this new knowledge to work together, and construct new horizons of hope and change?

I wrote this poem a while ago about counting my daughter's freckles. It speaks of numerous moments of noticing, allowing myself to be affected, and being mindful of the often surprising nature of 'joyful encounters'. There might not be so many during the weeks to come. But I'll keep trying to notice them.

Braidotti, R. 'Ethics of Joy'. in Braidotti, R. and Hlavajova, M. (2018). Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Reframing Home

Over the past couple of weeks (and most likely for the foreseeable future), home in all its imperfect glory has become a site for reflection, and so it seems timely to reflect on the language and framing of 'home' in the context of quarantine and forced isolation. The government's mantra of 'Stay home, protect the NHS save lives' is being repeated ad infinitum, but what isn't being considered within this frame is the politicised nature of domestic space and place. What is meant by 'home', and what ideal is being invoked by it?  This blog attempts to provoke some thinking and as ever I would be really interested to hear your views.

'Home' as promoted in Conservative party ideology suggests a hetero-normative calling to a world of standard families, warm sunny gardens, the scent of fresh baking and the sound of happy children crafting in spacious rooms downstairs. The reality for most, of course, is something quite different. Home, as a concept, is never neutral; it is an ideological as well as physical space, and this global crisis is calling these unspoken assumptions into question.  For many, home may be 'not-work'; a space of antithesis and refuge from a neo-liberal world of forced productivity and consumption. For others, particularly those at risk of domestic violence and coercion, home invokes a sense of threat or imprisonment. Home, for those bound to it through disability and caring responsibilities, will have long been problematised, and isolation may well be nothing new. Meanwhile, the nuclear family of two heterosexual parents and 2.4 children, routed in humanist ideals, has long since stopped being a standard, and is certainly not something to aspire to (if it ever was).   As Stacy Alaimo (2016, p.17) states '...domestic space has served as the defining container for the Western ''human'', a bounded space, wrought by delusions of safety, fed by consumerism, and fueled by nationalist fantasies.''

We are also seeing the leaky boundaries of home, as work creeps into spaces which may have previously appeared impermeable. Rooms are now being given over to makeshift work spaces and classrooms; 'surveillance creep' via management diktat to log hours and productivity is becoming commonplace.  We're reminded of Foucault's 'panopticon', where '...disciplinary power is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. ...It is this fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection.' (1977, p.187)  We are realising the extent of the leakiness of bodies too, as fears of the virus contaminating parcels, supermarket food and leaflets dropping through the letterbox remind us daily that our home is no longer our castle. Our houses - just like our bodies - are full of holes. 

Harriet, Inside
We are realising the unbounded nature of our local environments. From Welsh mountain goats to foxes and deer in East London; social media is full of stories of nature reclaiming spaces which were previously overrun by cars and humans rushing about their daily business. The nature/culture binary, and seeking of 'pure' spaces 'just for us' are being truly troubled; just as invisible viruses transcend our breathing space, so animals previously kept out through imagined or physical boundaries are beginning to return.  Perhaps it is time to rethink humans as species, as we move from anthropocentric frames to an understanding of a greater and much-needed relationality. After all, we marvel at the architectural skills of bees without respecting them as architects. Is it time to decentre the human and begin to see ourselves as more animal, whilst at the same time elevating our views of the 'minds' of non-human others?

These re-imaginings are not easy, and old habits of mind are hard to break. In re-thinking our relationships to the natural world, Alaimo refers to Walter de Maria's art installation, New York Earth Room; a permanent exhibition of soil filling a city apartment to waist-height. Visitors can view the earth and breath in the smell, wondering at the juxtaposition of pristine white walls and ageing humus. As ever, art can offer a route into reconfiguring our understanding of the nature/human divide, and in the months to come, may well play a key role in the emergence of a new sociological imaginary.

The zoonotic nature of the virus, and the increasing sense of blurred boundaries (both human and non-) speaks to the breakdown of dualistic beliefs which have separated humans both physically and ideologically from the natural world.  For me, this time of interregnum raises the following questions. What might it mean to embrace multi-species living, but with a new respect for difference and kinship? What does it say about entrenched global and local inequalities, and how do we challenge Western dualisms which perpetuate ideas of difference? And what might it mean for our homes, to know that we were never really separated at all?

Alaimo, S. 2016. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.