The whole world seems to be on pause. Cars parked, aircrafts on the ground, conferences on hold, shops closed, recruitment paused, people stuck in their homes (those who do have homes, that is). This pandemic crisis has found us waiting.
Adding an object to this sentence, “we wait,” and turning it into “we wait for x,” can be misleading: it makes the waiting look like being in a queue for something, and waiting for something means that we can project ourselves into that state, imagine ourselves in a reassuringly familiar situation. We wait for the time when we will get back to work, meet with our friends, visit the hairdresser’s, go to a conference, reschedule the holiday to our favourite Greek island. In other words, from this perspective, our normal lives are here (within reach), even if only just. Thinking of the coronavirus pandemic as a case of waiting to get back to normal can help us hide from the daunting idea that we may somehow get trapped in the wait itself, that waiting per se might be the reality.
But could it be, perhaps, that what the virus invites us to do is not just to wait (for something), but rather to stand still?
What does it mean to stand still? How are we supposed to do this? When we speak with friends, family and colleagues now it is not uncommon for many of them to report just how “busy” they have been; how they’ve “never had more to do”; and, indeed, how they’ve had “no time to think.” The difficulty that standing still involves is further reflected in the experience that many report these days about themselves: despite filling the time with online activities, “Zoom-ing” with friends, making new acquaintances on Houseparty, joining Pilates classes online, learning a new language on Duolingo, it is very hard to really concentrate on anything. This generalized difficulty to concentrate while adding new things to do is perhaps a sign of the challenge of standing still.
And, in one sense, who can blame us?
Stillness brings anxiety, what existentialists and psychoanalysts have talked about as Angst, an unfocused and deep-seated anxious state. A number of philosophers have suggested that anxiety is a taste of nothingness. Perhaps of our own end? Our own extinction?
According to the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, dystopias are not realistic depictions of what a future world might look like, but rather portrayals of feelings and anxieties about the present heightened to the point of dream or nightmare. But what happens when this nightmare becomes real? What changes with our sense of self when what had hitherto existed only as fictions (empty streets, shuttered buildings, people in masks and gloves crossing the street to avoid one another) suddenly become part of daily life?
One answer is that new mechanisms of defence begin to kick in. On the one hand, attempts at mastery and control: the drive to accumulate large amounts of facts and data, not just on death and infection rates, but also on more abstruse matters pertaining to epidemiology and immunology. On the other hand, we encounter not simple denial, but rather disavowal, which involves knowing and not wanting to know at the same time. The refrain is familiar: yes, it is clear that the situation is extremely serious, but the politicians and their scientific advisers are “winning the war” against the virus. Things might look gloomy right now, but soon the economy will bounce back, and in decades to come we’ll see this as nothing more than a brief disruption of human history.
Almost everyone during the lockdown has been struck by a profound sense of unreality: the world is at once both familiar and strange; and we, at the same time, feel both present and absent. In this new uncanny everyday, psychic cracks begin to emerge. Are we really who we think we are, and if not, who are we? Was our previous life a fantasy? Are the people with whom we engage on our screens the same people we once touched, kissed, held, recognized at a distance as they walked towards us? But perhaps the encounter with the “unreal city” (to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase) also confronts us with something else, something even more terrifying: a world that can clearly exist without us.
It is no small irony that one of the big intellectual and scientific stories of recent times has been the emergence of the so-called “Anthropocene,” an epoch in which the human species — the anthropos — is said to have ascended to biospheric supremacy, becoming a geological force in its own right. But this nomenclature serves only to reinforce a certain worldview: one in which mastery (anthropocenic “man” devastates the earth) and impotence (the human of the Anthropocene is unable to act historically) catastrophically collide. Under its veil of domination and control, the Anthropocene reveals our fears for our own extinction.
The extinction of Anthropos (our own extinction) extends far beyond our biological death. The uncanny taste of nothingness that emerges in stillness is also a bitter taste of our collective failure: the failure to create the social, economic, and political conditions for a good life. Our role, if we follow the logic of the Anthropocene, was simply to act as enlightened “planetary managers,” using our new “technological powers” to create a “good Anthropocene” (essentially a green Prometheanism). Except, of course, as the virus has clearly shown, even this wasn’t possible. Agribusiness-led deforestation, intensive mining, frenetic “development,” biodiversity loss… all creating the conditions for the spillover of new diseases from wild species to human communities. Here one cannot help but be reminded of the philosopher Günther Anders’s remark that humans under capitalism become “inverted utopians,” unable to visualize what they are actually producing. For Anders, overcoming this blindness will entail, at least in part, expanding our capacity for fear and anxiety and cultivating a renewed sense of the apocalyptic.
When Søren Kierkegaard wrote about anxiety, he described it as a feeling that arises in front of the vast possibilities linked to our freedom. We are never mere objects, but always also subjects. Whatever we are doing, we humans are always realizing possibilities; even doing nothing is already doing something, in the sense that in doing nothing we are shaping our present and future.
The anxiety in the face of freedom is not only an issue of guilt (the shocking realization that the failure of anthropos was a result of our free actions, not a mere accident), but it is a response to the idea that something different and better has always been possible. It is not only that we are implicated in a certain way of life that has been destroying our planet and our future, but also that it never had to be this way and therefore that this can change. It is a well-known fact that in psychoanalysis the greatest resistance in the patient appears just before they are about to make a transformative breakthrough. The patient would rather regress back to her painful, yet familiar old symptoms, rather than experience the vertigo-like feeling of the freedom to change, to be different, and to act differently.
In the stillness we taste the dystopia of our own extinction, the end of anthropos. But in the stillness we also find that we are already pregnant with transformative potential. The end, paradoxically, discloses a new opening: Hope… still.
Maria Balaska teaches philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire (UK). Her latest book is Wittgenstein and Lacan at the Limit: Meaning and Astonishment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Ben Ware is Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and the Visual Arts at King’s College, London, and is Philosopher in Residence at the Serpentine Galleries, London.
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