The COVID city: Class, physical isolation, and virtual connection
At the time of writing this we are all experiencing what the classical sociologist Émile Durkheim would call a “social fact” — something that cuts across all individuals and exerts social control on each of us. Today this solidarity-in-separation encompasses almost the whole world (Davies 2019). We are also enduring a between-betwixt period, what Durkheim’s contemporary Arnold van Gennep might refer to as a collectivized experience of communitas, but ironically because we are not a community of equals. We fearfully check news feeds on the mounting rates of infections and death in the hope of learning how to cope with our life as liminal creatures — not yet in the new-normal-COVID-19-world yet still lingering in the pre-COVID-19-old-world, paranoid, anxious and suspicious of others.
In this urgent and critical context, a central intellectual figure who can help us shed some light into our current psychological, emotional, and social apprehensiveness is Georg Simmel (1858-1919), who thought intensely about the struggles of individuals with social and technological processes evolving from expansive European metropolises. The 19th century experiment of the modern (imperial and colonial) cities brought fundamental changes to the process of self-formation and the experience of individuation. Larger sociological and philosophical trials and errors emerged from densified living in interaction with other human beings as urban life in the Metropolis (and imperial destruction in the colony) threatened individuals with overstimulation, or else led them to apathy. Simmel’s preoccupations with the effects of metropolises and money economies on mental life, and with the defensive tactics of secrecy, publicity, and concealment among urban dwellers over a century ago, now speak in uncanny ways to our liminoid/paranoid COVID-present.
For Simmel, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, the massive scale of urban life brings a central paradox: ‘what is public becomes ever more public, the private ever more private’ (2009: 331). Individuals become anonymized and depersonalized in cities as they attempt to ‘secure an island of subjectivity, a secret closed-off sphere of privacy’ (2004: 474). The COVID-19 crisis has intensified the urban experience of self-isolation through social distancing in ways that have arguably exacerbated myriad other crises of this current neoliberal hetero-patriarchal ecocidal capitalism. Under the renewed politics of COVID-19 austerity (with different levels of state support), individuals and groups become targets of structural violence and racism, climate refugees flee warned down ecosystems, or undocumented migrant workers suffer from disproportionately high rates of infection and mortality. As quarantined individuals enter a liminoid/paranoid state, their status as potential carriers and spreaders of the virus leave them increasingly de-anonymized, their secrecy turned public as a matter of public health.
As the pandemic began to emerge in January, China, South Korea, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries that had historical/medical/legal precedent in carrying out these surveillance processes from SARS in 2003 deployed multiple forms of monitoring to contain the first wave of the spread of the virus. Now, the task of singling out, notifying, and tracking people who might have come in contact with a person who has been diagnosed with (or is suspected of) contracting COVID-19 has been taken up by scientists and governments in their attempts to manage the different phases of the pandemic. Through a combination of classic epidemiological approaches (contact tracing) and biotechnical surveillance (including e-tracking through credit cards), different countries have tried to contain the spread of the virus by disclosing private information.
For Albert Camus and countless other writers, the city has always been the place of infection (as imagined coming from the outside), and thus a site to flee from (carrying their plagues with them). Quarantined individuals in the 21st century city became virtually hyperconnected and physically disconnected. Besides the impossibility of avoiding physical proximity, political inaction (deregulation, lack of public health preventive measures, absence of pandemic preparedness) has allowed enclosed institutions such as long-term care facilities, prisons, factories, hospitals, or meat processing facilities as well as subways, trains, supermarkets in dense cities have become breeding grounds of infection and death. The mental life in the city has been infected.
One of Simmel’s key observations is that individuals must navigate between secrecy and publicity in the city by concealing parts of their private self while disclosing others. By self-isolating and social-distancing, individuals in lockdown are not only protecting themselves (and their circles) by disrupting the exponential transmission of the virus (and buying time for the healthcare system), but also subverting Simmel’s point by making public their self-isolation. Paradoxically, those who are incapable of avoiding close proximity to other human beings have a higher chance of being at risk. Regardless of our capacity to avoid others, we are expected to stay home and behave as if we are all COVID-19 positive: to protect our individual self, we need to protect others (and vice versa). We become hyper-alert to the smallest details. (Is this a sore throat? Am I losing my sense of smell? Should I touch that door knob?) We become sociologists of the infinitesimally small (as Pierre Bourdieu once described the work of Erving Goffman). An underlying sense of unrest (both personal and political), an awareness of the uncanny gives rise to a sense of (un)homeliness. Those who oppose lockdowns yell to the cameras that “this is not normal” as a heightened domesticity and a general sense of COVID-induced loss and grief are experienced differently in the vacated city, as we quickly run errands in the rush to come back home (if we have one), and in the re-occupy city as we march in the streets with face masks searching for social justice.
The stranger within: The viral other as vector of disease
In his short piece “The Stranger,” Simmel describes the experience of those who live at the margins of society, almost invisible and often anonymous but also integral to life in the metropolis as they navigate the borders of privilege and oppression, inclusion and exclusion. The stranger is potentially a kind of “inside enemy,” an abject subject, remote and close at the same time (keep in mind how ideas about the stranger have been orientalised). Simmel describes the stranger as someone who “comes today and stays tomorrow,” an outsider within who dwells at the centre of modern society (1971: 143-44). One can wonder who the stranger is in the times of COVID-19, when everyone is a suspected virus-carrier and when COVID-19 itself “comes today, stays tomorrow.” How does the virus affect our mental life and the likelihood of becoming a stranger not just to others but to ourselves? One of the most striking aspects of the pandemic is that potentially anyone can get infected and die (not only the elderly, immunocompromised or those experiencing co-morbidities), and each of us can be the medium through which an elderly mother becomes ill without even knowing it (while adult children fear for their kin members in long-term care homes). Nervously, those we have to fear the most are those who show no signs of it: the asymptomatic. But even those who have more resources at their disposal are not necessarily protected from the virus, while members of racialized and marginalized groups die at proportionally higher rates in the US, Brazil, Canada, UK, and many other countries.
The virus is a stranger roaming around the immuneless human world as it attacks the weaknesses of the individual body and the most vulnerable institutions of the body politic, such as deregulated prison systems and long-term care facilities. The virus also hits those in the medical fields, including GPs, nurses, and first respondents, hardest due to their constant exposure. Indeed, the line between privilege and oppression as well as that between inclusion and exclusion becomes blurrier by the day, especially in countries or regions where medical professionals do not have adequate protective equipment, are overworked, and therefore feel anxious and unsafe every time they go to work. Even greater uncertainty emerges when the politico-medical advice is confused or confusing (one example: the use of face masks). Here in Canada, some regions with a good handle on the pandemic (as in British Columbia, where I live) are reopening (‘gradual deconfinement’), while others (Quebec and Ontario) hesitate as hundreds of new cases and high death-rates are recorded daily. With the intrinsic unpredictability of the pandemic (and illegibility of the virus), it is becoming clear that there will be second (and third, even fourth) waves of infection and that we will move back and forth between confinement and deconfinement phases. Leaving aside places where now (June 2020) the pandemic is escalating at hellish proportions (such as part of Brazil, the US, Russia, Chile, UK, Peru, and the list will evolve), how are we to understand “expanding the bubble,” as British Columbians are calling their gradual de-isolation? What does socially-distanced schooling, shopping, camping, and ‘socializing’ entail?
As Simmel notes, the stranger in the modern world renders racial and class tensions as more visible and spatialized in the urban grid. In the current context, as the virus spread outside China and Southeast Asia, among the first who became infected and brought the virus back home to many parts of the Western world were those from globalized middle-upper classes who were traveling abroad. They then transmitted the virus to their employees and other people with whom they were in contact with, a sort of top-down viral transmission through racial and class vectors. In order to contain the virus, Italy, Spain, New Zealand and other countries enforced mandatory lockdowns (while others like the UK waited longer, and Sweden never enforced it), eventually transforming everyone into strangers, no one experiencing inclusion or exclusion but only seclusion, and no one living either at the margins or the centre of society. Everyone is an other, a potential vector of disease, an alien in one’s own society, a foreigner living secluded and concealed, at least insofar as someone has the privilege of a shelter to stay in, a job to go to, or an income and the possibility of working from home (different governments have stepped up and supported citizens financially and by other means). Of course, there are degrees of strangeness if we consider (un)documented citizenship and the access to healthcare. When I first wrote this piece (in May 2020), I added: No one can wander as we become the stranger who comes home today and stays tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. But now (in June 2020), after the murder of George Floyd and the BLM and other massive demonstrations for social justice, I wonder how the othering and becoming-foreigner in one’s own society is reinterpreted under the toxic combination of COVID-19 racialized infection rates and the police murdering of BIPOC bodies at plain sight.
Despite different degrees of lockdown in different places, people have been asked to remain immobile inside their homes, if they have one. Those who became even more estranged in this context are often victims of multiple forms of abuse, especially women, children, and gender and sexual minorities. Mandatory social isolation has exacerbated and visibilized social inequities, including multiple forms of domestic abuse and racialized violence. In the efforts to avoid contagion, the inequalities that reproduce strangers among intimate dwellers have also become contagious. At the same time, many of those who enjoy the class luxury of the quarantine self, have discovered more positive sides of their persona since slowing down, as the hermit-self creates spaces of inner estrangement in which time does not move forward but rather inward (more books are read, new dishes are cooked, scarfs are knitted, stories are written). New networks of kin-making and horizontal care are engendered, as caregivers get to know their children better (and vice versa), people check in on their neighbours, and strangers on the street make new connections.
Over/understimulation and the blasé attitude: The Syllabus project
A key aspect of metropolitan mental life for Simmel lies in the tension between overstimulation and the blasé attitude, or more precisely, how the latter forms a kind of “protective organ” in response to overwhelming assault of the former (1997: 175). This stance of detachment is itself a strategy of self-preservation in the city (Kemple 2018). More recently, Byung-Chul Han (2015) has argued that our technology-obsessed late capitalism promotes an excessive positivity and a corresponding incapacity to manage negative experiences. As Han notes, we are overstressed, exhausted, burnt out, technologically dependent, and apathetic as our hectic urban life, with its constant boosts of sensation and incitement, often leaves us saturated and indifferent. The constant chatter about overstimulation and our blasé attitude to COVID-19 is itself a way of talking about the relationship we create with reality and our relations with others as we struggle to come to grips with what is happening. To cultivate a coping strategy while remaining socially isolated and physically–distanced, we rely on the Internet, with its tired oversaturation of corporate-deployed advertising algorithms. In this localized virtual place, we become commodities of late capitalism and distracted consumers of information flow (clicking, clicking, clicking). Meanwhile, this crisis has made the richest people in the world immensely richer. In May 11, 2020 (in one day!) the eight wealthiest men of the world made a combined net worth of $6.2B (see: shorturl.at/ipFS5). From Zuckerberg to Page to Gates and Bezos, the wealthy richest men on earth give thanks to the Internet for their wealth as those of us who rely on it become poorer, anxious, more socially isolated, or indifferent.
We need an antidote not just to the virus, but also to the corporate-deployed advertising algorithms colonizing our attention and demoralizing our efforts at mutual care. One such antidote is The Syllabus (the-syllabus.com), the brainchild of Evgeny Morozov (2012, 2013). This amalgamate of algorithmic and human organized sources using criteria of ‘relevance’ and ‘taxonomies’ is a kind of anti-algorithmic algorithm that attempts to break with the hectic speed of clickbait. Morozov has produced a counteragent against what often saturates mental life under quarantine, encouraging us instead to find the needle in the haystack of over-information, oversaturation, delaying or derailing our descent into the blasé attitude. With a critical mass of editors and cyberflaneurs, The Syllabus pre-digests texts, audios, and videos from academic and non-academic sources. (A special edition is updated daily for COVID-19 crisis.) The ‘selection’ of sources (‘curation’ is their term) attempts to break the logic of the algorithm-based and clickbait political-economy of the Internet, with its secret aim to monopolize platforms while preaching democratization. If we are going to develop more inclusive forms of mutual support during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to quickly figure out the most efficient ways to collectively maneuver these mounting crises while curating a kind of ‘protective organ’ of critical thinking against both overstimulation and the blasé attitude.
The saturated quarantined self in the city is under the command of constant transformation, a kind of liquification and aeration as we move through the pandemic phases of self- isolation, social distancing, and virtual connection in the hope that this will all be over soon but without ever actually knowing when. Late capitalism is based on acceleration and overstimulation, and, perhaps, discussions about the role of the state are becoming more prominent because we are seeking protective mechanisms against falling into a blasé state. Debates about social, reproductive, and ecological justice, migrant worker rights, access to health care as a human right, as well as racial, gender, ableist, and domestic forms of violence, to mention a few, are also ways to de-blasé our forms of care. In many cities, regular cheers to health care and other essential workers to the sounds banging pots and pans have become a nightly ritual. Individuality and interdependency with others (at micro and macro-levels) become more entangled while new-born grandchildren cannot be hugged by their grandparents and lullabies are sung via Zoom.
Beyond the blasé attitude
Finding ways to de-blasé our attitude to other people’s suffering, to recognize and resist oppression, and to become more inclusive despite (or precisely because of) the COVID-19 crisis will require us to rethink how our institutions are organized and how human-non-human relationships are made on planet earth. In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag points out that “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time” (2003: 118). We need more thinking; we need this crisis to be a way forward rather than a way back to ‘normal.’ Pushing the idea of liminality even further, Arundhati Roy (2020) imagines the pandemic as a portal: we knew it was coming, since the late capitalist globalized world-system based on exclusion, austerity, and affluence has always been a broken, rotten patchwork of privilege and oppression. Roy reminds us that often cataclysmic pandemics become catalytic breakthroughs for (re)imagining new worlds. In the past few months, many of us have felt a kind collective effervescence (using Durkheim’s term) as the COVID crisis confronts us with the terms of our liminal existence (van Gennep) in ways that may hopefully help us avoid descending into the blasé attitude (Simmel). The virus separates people, but it is also and always a relationship: “The relations we create out of this pandemic will determine who lives and who dies. Let’s choose relations organized around collective care and joy, and, choosing, resist oppression” (Shotwell 2020). From the liminoid/paranoid self we are today, perhaps we can create a crack, a threshold that would help us imagine a new world.
Thanks to Tom Kemple, Jon Beasley-Murray and Ana Vivaldi for helping me clarify my thoughts; especially thanks to Tom for his editing and huge guidance on Simmel’s ideas.
Rafael Wainer is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. His research interests are children’s experience of cancer treatment, end-of-life and palliative care, medical assistance in dying, chronicity and disability, and resilience and hope.
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