The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations

The critic Raymond Williams once wrote that every historical period has its own “structure of feeling.” How everything seemed in the nineteen-sixties, the way the Victorians understood one another, the chivalry of the Middle Ages, the world view of Tang-dynasty China: each period, Williams thought, had a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.

In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.

Schools and borders had closed; the governor of California, like governors elsewhere, had asked residents to begin staying at home. But the change that struck me seemed more abstract and internal. It was a change in the way we were looking at things, and it is still ongoing. The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable. We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.

In many ways, we’ve been overdue for such a shift. In our feelings, we’ve been lagging behind the times in which we live. The Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, the age of climate change—whatever you want to call it, we’ve been out of synch with the biosphere, wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants’ ability to repair. And yet we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990—as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense. We’ve been paralyzed, living in the world without feeling it.

Now, all of a sudden, we’re acting fast as a civilization. We’re trying, despite many obstacles, to flatten the curve—to avoid mass death. Doing this, we know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters. For some of us, it partly compensates for the disruption of our lives.

Actually, we’ve already been living in a historic moment. For the past few decades, we’ve been called upon to act, and have been acting in a way that will be scrutinized by our descendants. Now we feel it. The shift has to do with the concentration and intensity of what’s happening. September 11th was a single day, and everyone felt the shock of it, but our daily habits didn’t shift, except at airports; the President even urged us to keep shopping. This crisis is different. It’s a biological threat, and it’s global. Everyone has to change together to deal with it. That’s really history.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

PG says that, after every major event shared by a large number of people at the same time, there are always articles published similar to the OP that predict the world has fundamentally and permanently changed and, going forward, that things will be different in various ways. This is so predictable that perhaps it should be identified as its own genre – unjustified post-catastrophe dreams of a better world.

PG suggests that, while humans and their societies change and adapt to varying stimuli, human nature never really changes. That’s why New York City was a little bit different place for a few weeks or months after September 11, but it eventually reverted to its lovely/obnoxious (your choice) self.

This characteristic is one of the reasons why we can read history and understand the individuals involved in various great events of the past without a lot of difficulty.

Another instantiation of this trait is that we can read the poetry of Emily Dickinson or John Keats and understand the human feelings and responses to their circumstances in both an intellectual and intuitive manner.

Does PG’s contention mean that no significant trends will develop as a result of the coronavirus experience of the past few weeks?

It does not. However, the changes will be of some things, but not of everything and probably not changes of any fundamental nature for humankind.

Here are a few changes PG foresees (but he could be wrong):

  • More employees will be able to work from their homes on either a short term or permanent basis. This trend was in the process of happening, but received a huge accelerating boost from so many workers who were sheltering in place. People got a chance to try a different work environment and some (many?) decided they liked the new work environment better than the old one.
  • One consequence of such a change may be that it will become much easier for individuals to quit a job and go to work for a new employer. No relocation, no searches (or expenses) for a new house/apartment, no new schools for children, no packing/unpacking, finding a new druggist, doctor, etc., etc. Just a new ID/PW, a data dump into your electronic address files and credentials for the new company’s videoconferencing service.
  • If PG is correct about this, employers that require relocation for new hires may have greater difficulty attracting talented people. If you love New York, you can get a better job without having to move to Minneapolis (or vice versa). Another consequence may mean that it becomes much easier for unhappy or underpaid employees to ditch the old job and start a better one.

10 thoughts on “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations”

  1. It might help NY find (telecommuting) workers if they don’t actually live in NY to work for them.

  2. I suspect the lasting changes will result from what people learned about tele-work and a distributed work force. They tried things they had never really done on a large scale. Things will change because they work better regardless of public health considerations. It’s a giant learning experience that nobody could have ever financed.

    And next in line are the articles about how this will be the defining experience for the generation coming of age. This is the generation that continually arises to whip the world into shape. Not too long ago it could be identified by foosball tables.

  3. Humans, it seems, are too impatient on the whole to allow widespread lasting change to take root most of the time. We always seem to revert to form or pivot toward our self interest and greedy desires. It’s very unfortunate and makes me question how the hell we managed to reach our current place at the top of the ladder on this planet. Some permanent changes might happen, but not as many as we would think should happen.

    Yes, there may have been a moment when we all thought “Hey we can beat this by working together,” and then the masses of idiots decided they wanted to rush out and return to normal NOW, dammit.
    I expect to see a surge toward the more nightmarish infection numbers predicted because of this recent change. Everything we’ve worked for the last month or so is about to be wiped away by selfish people who want to go to the beach or get their hair cut.

    I think this mentality is what made all those zombie apocalypse novels possible. I often asked myself how could something as easily beatable as a shambling corpse who must bite you to spread the contagion overcome our military and scientific communities – well now we know, just look at the beaches and idiots storming Michigan’s state house.

    • It might be human stupidity, a powerful force at all times.
      (Which is why we have Darwin awards.)

      Or, it could be that the masses have lost all trust for politicians and establishment bureaucrats, many of which have used up their credibility trying to promote causes totally unrelated to the crisis. A closer look at the protests shows they aren’t everywhere nor are they without triggers.

      Humans are complicated and no simple solution can account for their activities.
      And to make it worse, most prefer to do their own thinking, whether well-informed or not. Not a local phenomenon, either. Even Russia is facing stirings of discontent.

      Not everybody is so consumed with fear as to surrender all critical thought, lemming-like, indefinitely.

    • and then the masses of idiots decided they wanted to rush out and return to normal NOW, dammit.

      The idiots are relying on additional information that was not available when the lock downs began. Those opposing them are relying on the information they had six weeks ago.

      Consider that Cuomo ordered NY nursing homes to take infected people. Many idiots are too smart to follow that kind of leadership.

      All the inmates in four federal prisons were tested last week. Appx 40-50% tested positive. However, 98% of those testing positive had no symptoms. Anyone think that virus behavior was known six weeks back? Do only idiots pay attention to advances in medical knowledge?

  4. When you take a good look at the “massive cultural changes” that have happened after some critical event (the Black Death, World War II, the Pill, desktop computers, etc., etc., etc.) – you will find that the event did only accelerate trends that were already stirring.

    • Very much like a lot of the “winners” of the lockdown follies: online shopping, home delivery, video streaming, work from home. If the infrastructure for all wasn’t already in place, they wouldn’t be able to navigate the new environment and take advantage.

      The one change I expect to emerge that wasn’t already trending is the reconsideration of high density living. One can control one’s actions but not those of neighbors. And tbe more neighbors you rub shoulders with, the greater tbe chances of something rubbing off. Two pandemics in a decade on top of vaxxer-driven outbreaks present a few clues about what that sometbing might look like.

      • Cities grew up around markets. Markets facilitate trade, and cities facilitate markets. Transport and communication bred density.

        Trade still uses markets, but many are virtual markets. We no longer have a hundred guys in flashy jackets screaming and shoving in a packed trading pit.

        So, what structure will facilitate the markets that facilitate future trade? Much of what the city offered is no longer needed.

        • There will still be a need for cities to serve as anchors for services and bureucrats but the mega cities are showing more cons than ups. The New City projects springing around will probably show the way.

          I’m thinking it might be time to spread out the population, maybe by recolonizing the west, where the government has been hoarding all tbat land.

          Story fodder if nothing else.

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