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.