'The Necessity of Bodies: Redux'

Posted on Mar 27, 2021

From Mary Harrington over at Unherd:

We’ve paid steeply to control this virus. The price has not just been in government borrowing but in the tattered warp and weft of our common life. Maybe the price has been worth paying: even under lockdown, a staggering 126,000 UK citizens died within 28 days of a Covid test over the last year. But the cost has been unfathomable as well, both individually and collectively — and it has not been evenly borne.

Over the past year, I ran more than a thousand miles. I counted my blessings with every step. Compared to many I have been lucky. I kept running as the hedgerows blossomed, greened, fruited and blew bare, and the world outside came increasingly to resemble a bleak and hallucinatory shadow-show. Even if everything else has seemed insubstantial, the paths under my feet stayed put: unchanged except by the seasons coming and going.

It’s easy to conclude that it’s all unreal, and to turn away. But the point is precisely that that out there is not a shadow-show: it’s an emerging new normal. It’s just difficult to see, because everything now, from our media to government lockdown policy, seems geared toward “just me” or “everything” — but nothing in between.

Who cares about local life, now our public conversation happens online, at colossal scale, in terms set by Chinese ambassadors and Ivy League social justice evangelists and massaged by algorithms? The answer has to be: us. We care. Even as it’s grown harder to see our life in common, we need it more than ever. The alternative is a future governed purely by Aella’s Law: an unjust, atomised, deeply inhuman place.

I’m hesitant to belabor this point, especially because I’ve already written about this. Additionally, I’ve become more hopeful about things on this side of the pond, with the accelerating output of vaccinations and whatnot. I’m also trying to think in more constructive terms generally — not just bitching about Things That Grind Robbie’s Gears. But, I think that Harrington’s warning about Aella’s Law bears hearing. I encourage you to read the entire piece.

I sometimes (often?) express antipathy toward media, corporate, and governmental institutions, and I worry that I sound like a raving anti-mask Q-anon enthusiast to my friends and family. But this last year has been boon for entities that parasitically thrive on crises. The pandemic gave our Bay Area overlords the opportunity to augment surveillance capitalism with the shock doctrine. When I hear politicians (whose campaigns often receive considerable financing from Silicon Valley) extol the virtues of draconian health and safety measures, the reality of “disaster capitalism” colors my perspective. Amazon, Zoom, and Netflix have all had a banner year.

Like I said, I’ve been feeling something like hope, maybe even optimism, lately. Spring is arriving here in Virginia, I just returned from a road trip through the deep south to Florida (the subject of another post), and I have my first Pfizer Nectar appointment scheduled. This optimism causes me to cringe a bit at Harrington’s use of that damnable phrase, “new normal”. As the risks of conviviality and embodiment continue to abate, I think people will be beating down the doors of bars, churches, and music venues; I’d even say they already are.

The remarkable thing about the attention economy is that in order to be free even while living in the midst of it, you simply need to be deliberate about where you direct your attention. As people are increasingly unhappy with the psychological regime of outrage and terror, they discover all they need to do is walk away. It doesn’t take much to remember that Doordash, YouTube, and livestreams are poor substitutes for the things they mediate.

Harrington says that we need to be the people who care about our local life. If the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues are any indication, many already do care. And this gives me hope.