This essay is a part of the COVID-19 dossier, edited by the b2o editorial staff.
by Dominic Pettman
My wife is in love with a bear.
Specifically, a Russian bear, who was rescued as an orphaned cub three years ago, near a rural airfield, and who has since grown into what I must admit is a most handsome and charming creature. She watches him all day, between all her various doings, through a live-cam, as he slumbers, cavorts, or daydreams. She has learned all his different moods – from pensive to mischievous – and she knows who are his favorite, and least favorite, of the humans who arrive periodically to bring food and clean the enclosure. One thing I have gleaned, from the raw footage I have seen, is that this bear is incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Bored with his limited surroundings, he has still managed to create games for himself; pushing a large flat rock around the compound like a toy truck, or twisting a log into a hammock so that it becomes something resembling a row-boat. He loves resistance from the world, and is visibly smiling when life pushes back against him in surprising ways; whether in the form of a large tire, hanging from a tree, or his favorite of all the humans, Andre.
If a bear plays in the forest, does anyone see him? In this case, yes. Even at 3am, he might be swimming in his pool, making intricate games with his giant paws, and the physics of water. Other times, he becomes exhausted by the lack of existential push-back, and lies on his giant furry paws, reflecting rather glumly on his plight – locked in a cage about half an acre square. At these times, a deep melancholy can descend on his large, charismatic head; the same head which swayed back and forth with such joy, just the day before, while playing with a sapling, and trying to turn it into his own private, flexible jungle gym.
Even before COVID-19 hit New York hard, I felt there was something allegorical about this bear’s life, and the fact that we have access to it, via new digital tools that simultaneously seem to open and close worlds. But now, as we move into the second month of stay-at-home orders, and “social distancing,” it’s impossible not to feel a strong kinship with this sensitive, trapped animal, on the other side of the world. In some sense, we could not ask for a better quarantine coach or mentor in this bear, who, in an act of imaginative alchemy, manages to transform the base materials of a bleak Russian winter into a playground for his own fancy and delight. But the effort involved is clearly immense, and the come down can be hard. Between the self-fashioned entertainment lies long stretches of what Walter Benjamin called “empty homogenous time”: a form of temporal measurement that the philosopher felt was an illusion, compared to the full textures of historical experience. And yet the boredom of individual experience can indeed feel hollow and monotonous.
Quarantine time is strange and queasy. Some days go fast, while the weeks seem to take months. Each day bleeds into the next, like a punctured bottle of cough syrup, sopped up by a bag of cotton wool. Apparently we did not fully appreciate the extent to which daily routines, and social interaction, structures and recalibrates our sense of duration. (Although the incarcerated, the unemployed, the aged, the monastic, the scholastically entrapped, and the addicted understand this brute fact instinctively.) What shall we call that feeling when the general structure of feeling begins to lose its structure?
Boredom was considered a threshold experience, by Martin Heidegger, the controversial German philosopher. He believed it was shot-through with potential to wake us up from the numbing comfort of our distractions, and deliver us into a more authentic relationship with the vertiginous miracle of Being. Modernity, for this same thinker, represented nothing more or less than “the forgetting of Being,” thanks to the inoculating efficiency of modern technologies, automatized habits, alienating impulses, and existential disavowals.
Well, the sudden collapse of our social and economic system has jolted us out of this zombie-like daze. The remembering of Being, however, is no picnic. Especially for creatures who have dedicated at least the last few centuries to repressing the full force and feeling of its fragile and fleeting nature. We are “thrown” into the world, without asking to be. So we must contend with being wrenched into existence, out of the rather smug continuum of lifeless matter. (Which is why Georges Bataille calls us “discontinuous beings,” forever attempting to simulate some kind of continuity, especially through erotic pseudo-fusions.) The battle between (soothing) distraction from, and (painful) acknowledgement of, the conscious burden of being individuals – along with our own lonely trajectories and fates – is ongoing, however.
Netflix is one of the most popular strategies we have against smashing our bug-like faces against the onrushing windscreen of personalized finitude. And as such, it embodies a new kind of digital cogito: “I watch, therefore I am (not).” Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that Netflix itself has become sentient, and is trying to communicate with us, and perhaps even warn us against further dangers to come.
Take for instance the new reality TV show, The Circle. This franchise – which began in the UK, but has since mushroomed into the US, Brazil, and France – features contestants who isolate themselves in separate apartments in the same building, only able to communicate with each other via text. Essentially a cross between Big Brother, Survivor, and Black Mirror, the viewer enjoys a sense of voyeuristic access and omnipotence, as the contestants talk to themselves; narrating their thoughts in a self-conscious, no-doubt contractually obliged, form of mental extrusion. Like the Russian bear on YouTube, they are mostly left to their own devices to keep themselves entertained, while food arrives periodically at their door. But in this case, they are competing for a cash-prize, by participating in a socially-mediated popularity contest.
Consider also, Love is Blind, which also premiered on Netflix just a couple of weeks before the virus infected our media ecology, as much as our bloodstreams. Here again, contestants were mostly relegated to isolated pods, and obliged to talk to each other in highly mediated ways; again, not even seeing each other’s faces, but relying on the spoken or written word to make conversation, diversion, judgements.
Was Netflix preparing us for an imminent world of radical separation, and the simulation of company or community? Moreover, did the CEO of Netflix, along with Jeff Bezos, engineer COVID-19 in his evil lair, so that we would all be one-hundred percent reliant on their commercial vectors to eat and stay even vaguely entertained?
Being a college professor, suddenly obliged to move my classes online, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the experience of trying to simulate some sense of togetherness, in “real time.” (It’s like we had a premonition when we named the next generation Zoomers, isn’t it?) The Zoom room may be a “reasonable facsimile” of a seminar, but it lacks the palpable textures – material, mental, emotional – that only sharing an intimate sphere, carved from the analog curves of the space-time continuum, can provide. Indeed, this is another thing we have lost, at least in the medium-term: the synchronicity of co-presence; the potential to be bored together, and then leap across this boredom into a kind of infectious intellectual epiphany. The seminar is a privileged space, where we are attuned to each other’s moods on various registers, and navigate these affective landscapes with the aid of social graces and conceptual compasses. As a result, few things are as depressing as a bad class. Conversely, few things are as exhilarating as a good one.
I have several friends, it must be said, who have expressed pangs of guilt about enjoying the stay-at-home order, and having an alibi to be introverted, anti-social, “remote.” Indeed, some of these same people complain about the new burden on “checking in” with each other, and enduring Zoom “happy hours”; occasions that they no longer have an excuse for flaking on. Hence the irony of the moment: social distancing has led to increased socializing (albeit through the screen). For some, this is a kind of worst-case scenario – losing the mammalian immediacy of mingling in the same actual space, while still obliging one to endure the worst aspects of inter-subjective choreography. As the 17th-century socialite, Madame de Sévigné, wrote, “How tedious those gatherings that deprive us of solitude without affording us company.”
Personally, I miss all those tiny, random, asymptotic encounters that inspired me to move to New York in the first place. This great city, already significantly hollowed out by neoliberal policies and the black-mold of global capital, is now uncannily quiet, except for the sirens which serve as a constant reminder that things are rapidly becoming medieval, here in the Plagueopolis. Suddenly, even the most rote, phatic, and alienated of daily exchanges seems utopian to me. Or rather, Arcadian. Lost, like the Garden of Eden.
From out of my living room window, I can see the El Dorado, which along with the Dakota, the San Remo, and the Beresford, is one of the most expensive and exclusive apartment complexes in this part of the city. There are about twenty floors, and at least a hundred different dwellings. Judging by the lights, only one apartment is currently occupied. The rich have fled the city, for their Hamptons retreat, Caribbean getaway, or New Zealand bunker. I say, we don’t let any of them back in.
Due to my own (now common) paranoia about enclosed, potentially infected, spaces, my apartment has suddenly become a nine-story walk-up. Good exercise at least. Although I have been doing my part to “flatten the curve” by staying inside my one-bedroom apartment as much as possible, only scurrying to the park once or twice a week, around dawn, to remember what The Outside world looks, feels, and smells like. The last time I went downtown was to retrieve some items I needed from my office, after being told that all university buildings were being closed for an unspecified amount of time (perhaps to be converted into make-shift hospitals). This was only a few days after New York City officially went on “pause,” closing all restaurants, cafes, bars, and other “inessential” establishments. As long as my neurons hold out, I will not forget the epic, apocalyptic flavor of this walk. (Seventy blocks south, and then back again, since I was not willing to risk the subway.)
It was like a cross between The Odyssey and I Am Legend. The streets were eerily deserted, except for the occasional homeless person, or stranded tourists, wandering about dazed. I could stroll down Seventh Avenue no problem. Everything was shuttered. Even Times Square was empty, except for an illegal gathering of thirty or so religious zealots, punctual as always, declaring the End of the World through a megaphone, and the subsequent need to repent. One of these modern-day millenarians even had a crucifix over his shoulder, that he was dragging along the pavement. The scene felt especially pathetic, as it was clear that any heaven-bound souls had already been raptured, and we were all the remnants, left to fend for ourselves on the streets; no matter how devout we may feel ourselves to be. Watching this scene, I caught the eye of a homeless man wearing a WW1 gas-mask, and we both shrugged in a moment of bleak amusement.
Meanwhile, the giant billboards continued to play slick and fashionable commercials around us. Models the size of skyscrapers beckoned the now-vanished crowds to a Shangri-La of perfectly tussled hair, designer jeans, and callipygian promise. While I have read almost every book by J.G. Ballard, nothing prepared me to be standing almost alone in the sudden ruins of an already indecipherable culture. Enigmatic, shimmering Gods and Goddesses beckoned to me with a kind of sadistic – or at least uncomprehending – glee. I wanted to stay there for a while, in the belly of this evacuated beast, in order to absorb the full effect of a pantheon now abandoned by Man, whose solicitous smiles and flirtatious gestures were now moot and unseen. Like an aurora borealis, shimmering over the valley of death.
Of course all pronouncements of the end of Capitalism are premature. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the forces of capital outlive humanity. (Insert over-used Fredric Jameson quote here.) As long as Instagram is still functioning, along with wifi, the children of these avatars of consumption will persist, finding new ways to drape their lithe bodies in the invisible garments of the economic emperor. (Also known as “brands.”)
Nevertheless, the whole world has a real Fyre Festival vibe right now.
The virus has infected my dreams, so I’m even afraid to socialize oneirically. Clicking around online, it seems I’m not the only one. Even in the creative, compensatory theaters of the slumbering unconscious, we are practicing metaphysical distancing, just to be safe. What an incalculable loss.
Last night I had a dream where I was wandering through a field-hospital at night (i.e., hundreds of beds, literally out in a field, full of patients struck down by the virus). For some reason I wasn’t scared of being infected, wandering between the beds, in the moonlight. I soon noticed that the heart-monitors were displaying stock market surges and drops, rather than the pulse of the sick ones. One patient started to try to say something to me, short of breath. I leaned closer, and heard the old man wheeze: “Coming soon to Netflix, the new season of Stranger Things.” I looked at the doctor nearby, puzzled. He wearily explained that in order to satisfy the requirements for health coverage, patients had to make regular sponsored announcements, up to their last dying breath.
I suppose this is obvious, but one reason we all feel so weird right now is because we’re scared, and thus our “fight or flight” reflex is activated. And yet we are obliged to stay put, neither fighting nor fleeing. So we marinade in our homemade, homeopathic adrenaline drips.
As a result, the 7pm whooping and hollering in support of medical workers hasn’t yet failed to make me misty. There’s a couple of adorable kids who clamber up on the roof opposite, with their young father, and bang some pots like gongs. It’s a collective tonic, after all the isolation and disquieting quiet, punctuated increasingly frequently by sirens. Is it too much to ask a new sense of “the people” will arise from this?
That shameful feeling, when you can feel a personal essay, coalescing in one minds, like an unwanted ovum. Or rather, like a hairball, that you need to cough up. As if the world needs yet another middle-class person, commenting on the coronavirus! And yet, what else are we supposed to do? Highly trained word-processors, trapped inside, with access to little more than keyboards and caffeine.
Of course, I’m currently one of the lucky ones – the equivalent of a contestant on The Circle, who is more likely to suffer from cabin fever than anything else, while the Desperate Ones deliver groceries to my door, unseen. (Though, truth be told, the supply chains in the city have collapsed, and I can no longer count on deliveries.) The writing on the wall speaks of pay cuts across the board, as a best-case scenario. Truth be told, I was always pessimistic enough to never take tenure for granted, as a job for life. My eyes have been open enough to know that this exotic category was on the verge of extinction, and just another economic stumble away from being abolished altogether. The real question is whether C19 (as people are starting to call it), will prompt a Jenga-like collapse, including the billionaires, whose vast and unthinkable fortunes cannot withstand the breakdown of the banking system? Or will sanity eventually prevail, and new safety nets will be installed, including the long-overdue win-win scenario of a Universal Basic Income? (As being currently phased-in in Spain).
Depressingly, however, the US seems hell-bent on belligerently belly flopping into its new global role as Failed State #1. Indeed, as I write, the White House has just refused to bail out the USPS. Can it be a coincidence that this is our last chance to communicate with each other, free of corporate surveillance and interference?
Twitter, Facebook, and so on, make us feel more connected to those we’ve now been decisively estranged from. But they also magnify and amplify this estrangement; clumsily reinforcing the profound gulf between tele-communication, and the kind fostered by physical proximity. My point is not to simply insist on the superiority of the latter, but to bemoan the lengths to which our political managers are actively trying to banish it.
The Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has, justifiably, caught a lot of flak for his commentary on the crisis; especially his comments playing down the horrific fatality rate of the virus. (In this sense, he is speaking in concert with despicable figures like Bolsanaro, and our own orange menace.) Nevertheless, he is also not exactly off-the-mark, when he foresees the ways in which our current technocratic managers will seize on this opportunity to introduce new draconian surveillance measures and systems; policing our every move, and even monitoring the contents of our bloodstreams in real time. He writes:
the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.
Deleuze was, astonishingly, too optimistic, when he wrote: “Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.” Turns out, he – and, of course, she – is now both enclosed and in debt.
Looking out my kitchen window, at 9pm on a Friday night, the streets are empty. Normally, a throng of people would be crisscrossing my vision; on foot, on bikes, in cars. But now, I see only the occasional delivery guy or emergency vehicle. Even the 24-hour bodega on the corner, which has always been my beacon in the dark – my “well-lighted place” – is closed.
But then, suddenly, a swarm of people flurry past. A renegade group of cycle-punks are taking advantage of the empty roads, and going on a nocturnal joy-ride, complete with skull masks and pirate flags. My heart skips a beat. I know that I should be “tut-tutting” these youngsters, high on adrenaline and Mad Max movies. But the truth is, my spirit flies out to them; with them. Somehow they are different to the libertarians, brandishing machine guns on the steps of state parliaments, demanding we “reopen the economy.” These steamless steampunks seem to me more like angels or valkyries of a post-carbon future; even as they risk spreading the infection in their wake. “The great god Pan is dead!” announced the Egyptian sailor Thamus, two thousand years ago. “Long live Pan!” I whisper to the window, embarrassed at my fey references, in a time of real crisis.
To be clear, I confess this moment of romantic transport not to question the importance of social distancing at this moment, but to also register the detrimental effects on our spirits, our bodies, and our sense of sensual potential.
For while it is to be applauded that great cultural institutions and esteemed archives are putting almost infinite hours of entertainment, distraction, and edification online for free, this won’t compensate for the losses of naïve gatherings, contact, closeness. People are already noting how they watch a TV show from last year, and are appalled at how closely the characters interact. Moreover, we’ve had access to exponential zettabytes of human output for years now. That’s not where the vitality of our existential potential adheres.
Truly, we are living, as Jean Baudrillard noted, “after the orgy.” (With the exception of the one-percent, presumably, who are still having Eyes Wide Shut sex parties on their private islands, with Ukrainian escorts who have all been medically pre-screened.)
My sister, a Buddhist monk, is trying to figure out the technology to enable her to upload some videos on “Turning Self-Isolation Into Self-Actualization.” This reminds me of the old Zen saying: “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” Certainly, this is a lesson we could all learn at this time; still tyrannized, as we are, by the compulsion to be productive.
Agamben was previously famous for redefining the classical notion of “bare life,” or zoe, which is an ontological condition preceding all biopolitical codings. In simpler terms, it is a naked form of existence which has not yet been captured, processed, and sorted into the various categories on which society depends: “citizen,” “barbarian,” “slave,” “alien,” and so on. Refugees are a specter haunting this bureaucratic system because they threaten to overwhelm it. In their fleshy striving to persist, they are a form of bare life that disturbingly reminds all of us that we are all potentially, literally, “in the same boat.” And if there is one crucial lesson the coronavirus has taught us, is that the whole world is an infectious, claustrophobic cruise-ship.
All the neoliberal economic policies and structures that enabled “just-in-time capitalism,” are what also set the perfect conditions for this “just-in-time apocalypse,” since there was no contingency planning, no stock-piles, no emergency backup resources. There was merely the ongoing plundering of bare lives, barely able to make a living, because the rich are, stupefyingly, somehow not rich enough yet.
We all knew this, in our bones, as we watched the planet itself gasping for breath. The Amazon forest – “the lungs of the world” – have been on fire, with the economic equivalent of Covid19, fanned by the corporate logic of Amazon.com. And yet we wrung our hands impotently, hoping the next generation, or preferably the one after that, would have to deal with the real consequences. (“First world problems,” of course, since most of the world has been dealing with these consequences for years, decades, centuries.
Which brings me back to my Russian bear.
In some ways, he is “one of the lucky ones,” since he is alive and healthy, albeit bored and in captivity. Given the ways in which humans have monopolized and decimated the ecological world for our own ends, animal life has been dragged almost completely inside our own biopolitical apparatus. There is no longer any “outside” the anthropocene. No beyond the toxins we have created, the plastics we have produced on such a mind-boggling scale. We have, for instance, created a new type of “bear life,” for the life of bears, that are obliged to endure their existence inside our own cages, or, at best, the perimeters of our own national parks. Instead of catching salmon in living streams, too many of them now frolic in tiny pools, on livestreams. Perhaps it’s ironic, however, that I’m feeling sorry for a bear that enjoys more room to roam than I do. Human delusional pathos forever wins the day.
Heidegger notoriously claimed that animals are “poor in world.” This in comparison to humans, who are, at least on a good day, “world-building.” Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have a lockdown coach like this Russian bear. When he devises a new toy from the sticks and stones that litter his compound, I swear he laughs to himself. And who knows what flights of imagination he goes on, while I sit in a Zoom office hour, awaiting students that never “arrive.”
Dominic Pettman is University Professor of Media and New Humanities at The New School. He is the author of numerous books on technology, humans, and other animals; including Creaturely Love (Minnesota), Sonic Intimacy (Stanford), and Metagestures (Punctum, with Carla Nappi). His most recent book, Peak Libido: Sex, Ecology, and the Collapse of Desire, will be published by Polity, later this year.