Covid-19 and cultural torpor

by Nico Carpentier

Short essay presented at the ADESTE+ European Conference, episode 5, on Tempestuous times – the crisis – recovery and change (28 September 2020)

A starting point to think about the socio-cultural dimensions of Covid-19 is what Gramsci has called the organic crisis, and Laclau and Mouffe the dislocation. These concepts theorize the idea that at moments like these our sedimentations and discursive orders get disrupted. These are moments where, in other words, certainties weaken, which can produce deep emotional disturbances, including anxiety and lethargy. In this particular case, we are not only confronted with the dangers of a pandemic, but also with systemic failures in responding to it. We see our medical system fail at a most structural level, having to place dead bodies in containers and exhausting health care workers. We see our political systems incapacitated, fearful of implementing what Beck called the precautionary principle. We see the capitalist system, being unable to care for even the most basic needs of large groups of people. We see the lack of solidarity amongst people, the cost of individualism and the increasing disregard for (elderly) lives, and we see the so much desired and needed human interaction crumble away.

As an organic crisis, this pandemic is also particular, as the infectious risks of human interaction immobilises us even more, thus further limiting our capacities to respond, to protest, to (re-)organise. This is the state of torpor. The cultural field is particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, as its resources are often dependant on spectators, on bodies gathering to see, hear, feel, smell and/or taste, which has become a threat in its own right. Obviously, the cultural field, all very much humans, is not outside the syndrome of torpor (even if there is protest, much to the credit of this field).

Still, organic crises have something is particular. The destabilisation and unsettling of our certainties -of our hegemonies- also offers opportunities. In the words of Howarth and Glynos: The social logic then makes way for the political logic. This is the time for re-articulation, for reconsideration, for the forging of new hegemonies. The organic crisis is the moment where we can think a new world, even if it feels like the least likely thing to do. There are many issues to reconsider, for instance our relationship to nature (with viruses being very much part of nature), our relationship to infectious illness (where so many of us go to work, or send our children to school, when we/they are 'a bit' ill), our relationship to capitalist labour (which forces us into a rat race where we disregard our bodies), our relationship to our organisations (and how to balance inside/outside, introversion/extraversion), our relationship to knowledge and expertise, our relationship to time and space (with accelerations and evacuations), our relationship to the elderly (who are locked into pre-ossuaries called 'homes'), our relation to remembrance and the dead (and how we commemorate this ongoing mass slaughter) and our relationship to each other (where we continue to expose each other to risk, but paradoxically also need to control our fear for the touch, so vital for human communication).

The cultural field has the capacity to create and produce these new discursive orders (or at least to contribute), and has a vital role to play in doing so. It is high time to leave the state of cultural torpor, to give meaning to new experiences and feelings (and traumas) that leave the current discursive orders powerless, and to develop and communicate new ideas that better make sense of these contemporary times. This also means that cultural policy is needed, more than ever, in generating resources for these re-articulations but also in stimulating the cultural field to shed off the chains of cultural torpor. Maybe the future spectators also have a role to play now, as they are unwillingly unified by a global pandemic, and might need to become invited into this process of meaning creation as well.

But most importantly - this cannot wait. Because, and here we should remember Fassbinder's movie title (and brilliant film narrative that captures the idea): Fear eats the soul.

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