geography of fear / fear of geography

Back when I used to live in Velcro City’s original namesake, I remember being told many times over, by many different sources, that difficult cases of social exclusion or dysfunction were often tagged by overburdened social workers in the area with the acronym NFP—“normal for Portsmouth”.

Quite how normal (or not) those cases actually were—and quite how true the story was, given that I don’t think I ever heard it first-hand from a social worker—is not the point. (Though I would note that little I have learned since about Po-town or the rest of the UK has given me reason to suspect it of being a complete falsehood; it was always a troubled polis, in a lot of different ways.) The point is that I’m getting a stark lesson in the situated subjectivity of normality right now, and struggling to process it.

To be clear, there are many worse struggles I could be facing; this is not a call for pity, by any means. Furthermore, I suspect everyone’s getting some variant of the same thing, whether on top of other more vital struggles or not: the pandemic is global, but the way we experience it is predominantly local, even as we are plugged in to various sources of news and opinion and experience from elsewhere. Coronavirus is throwing all sorts of new light on the world, and not much of it seems to be flattering in terms of institutional preparedness and honesty.

Things are particularly weird for me right now because I have little precedent for what normal looks like in my current location. I’ve been living in Sweden for a few weeks, and one of those weeks was spent in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in Lund and Malmo before, but not enough to have a feel for what a busy day or a quiet day looks like. As such, how normal things are now is something of an open question for me. It’s definitely quiet here on campus at Lund… but there are people chatting in the corridor outside my office door right now, and there are students in the common areas downstairs, though perhaps fewer than one might expect even this close to the end of the semester. There were people on my train in to work, though again, fewer than I’d expect for the time of day. There were people at the bar I went to last night, but not many, and the vibe was subdued. There was plenty of food in the shops yesterday, and at present I have no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this evening, too.

All of which is to say: when I open up my channels of news and experience from the UK and the US, I’m slapped with a huge wave of cognitive dissonance. Things are looking pretty panicky in the Anglosphere right now, to say the least.

I have various thoughts and feelings about all of this stuff, but I’m largely keeping it to myself—not least because I’m not an expert in epidemiology or disaster management, and furthermore I’m not sure that anyone needs or wants my lukewarm takes on how things are being handled by anyone, anywhere. There’ll be time enough for that after the pandemic—which, for the sake of total clarity, I very much believe to be a real thing.

But I can’t help but be drawn to the differences between the public vibe here in Sweden and elsewhere—particularly that of the UK, where most of my experiential accounts are coming from. The Swedish government has recommended self-isolation to those with symptoms of respiratory infection, and there’s a recommendation also against gatherings of more than 500 people which is not, AFAIK, actually a thing with any legal force so much as a polite suggestion from the powers that be (albeit one delivered with a justified confidence that it will be followed without significant protest or argument). Lund University is carrying on pretty much as normal, modulo the afore-mentioned self-isolation (my PI, bless him, has had a fever for over a week, but is sat at home grinding out impact evaluations for an ongoing project), and the inevitable uptake of the opportunity to work from home by knowledge workers in a country where working from home is a very easy ask, and where sick pay is decent and unlikely to be quibbled over. And as already mentioned, trains are running, shops and bars are open, toilet roll and teabags are still obtainable without recourse to black-marketeering.

But just across the water, the Danes have closed their borders. Well, they’ve closed them to anyone but Danes… or anyone with a really good reason to be there (e.g. caring for a sick relative), or people going between Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport) and Sweden without stopping anywhere in between… or people involved in mantaining supply chains, such as truck drivers. A lockdown with that many exceptions is likely to be fairly unsuccessful… and it’s been suggested to me that this might be reflective of a long-standing anxiety about borders and infection that is endemic to Denmark.

(Though that suggestion has mostly come from Swedes, who do rather pride themselves on not being the Danes, in what I can already tell is one of the most epic nation-state-scale cases of the narcissism of small differences one might wish to encounter. Heck, it may well be that the Swedes are sticking with a calm and open-for-business attitude primarily as a way of differentiating themselves from their Scandi cousins. It’s probably quite handy to be able to point at your more performatively racist neighbours when you’re a polite, tacit type of people who don’t want to talk about your own problems with a rising far-right movement.)

And as for the UK… well, I’m too distant to get a good read on it, and I’m staying well out of social media as usual. My decision to quit the platforms has never looked wiser, to be honest—and that outsider’s perspective makes it all the easier to agree with Ryan Diduck when he suggests that “[i]t’s almost as if the media were the virus”.

(And again, for the avoidance of doubt: I’m not denying the existence of the virus as a thing, and nor is Diduck, as far as I can tell. But there’s a definite medium-as-message element to the discourse around the virus, and that piece makes a damn good grasp for it.)

None of this is to discredit people’s fears or anxieties, either. I suspect it’s easy for me to be a bit sanguine precisely because I’m in a sanguine environment, with little exposure to the amplificatory feedback loops of the birdsite et al. I dare say that if I were still in the UK, and had no expectations of being anywhere else any time soon, I would be feeling a lot more precarious. But therein lies my point: the virus has become a surface onto which all other social anxieties are being projected. As I remarked to someone last week, it’s as if after what must be a decade of those nauseating and bedamned “keep calm and carry on” snowclone posters, and all the lively but nonetheless very stiff-upper-lipped protesting and pushback about The B-Word, the virus has finally cracked the lid on what passes for the British geist, and released a vast cloud of anxiety, fear and anger. Ditto the US—it’s as if in both cases everyone has spontaneously moved on from bargaining and anger about the situation, and finally started focussing on its concrete implications. Here I’m modifying a Źiźek riff from this morning, which is (it seems to me) uncharacteristically positive: now we’ve all been forced to face the truth that can no longer be denied, bargained with or argued away, we’re going to (have to) start working on the problem instead of just shouting or tweeting about it. Sickness as solidairty, solidarity in sickness… the possibility of the pandemic as a force for a renewed and networked internationalism.

I’m plugged in sufficiently well to know that’s not going to be a fashionable take—and presumably even less so, given who I’ve just cited. But if you won’t take it from ol’ Slavoj, how about Rebecca Solnit? A newsletter in my inbox this morning reminded me of her thinking in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which are summed up in this 2009 NYT review of her book A Paradise Built in Hell:

… this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”

[…]

Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.

My feelings and opinions about the situation alluded to above might be lightly summarised by my observing that the most panicked populations at the moment would seem to be those with the most dysfunctional and authoritarian governments. (The functional authoritarians, e.g. China, appear to be weathering it pretty well after a bad start.) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t concerned; nor am I suggesting that a state response is not necessary. What’s interesting here is rather the character of the response, both of (and also between) the dysfunctional state and its public, and the light that the situation is throwing on those governments. If Źiźek and Solnit are right, we may see a new sense of cooperation and solidarity emerging at street level as this thing progresses… and we might also find that a whole cavalcade of emperors are suddenly understood to have been naked all along, by people who will swear blind that they were never duped in the first place.

Gotta find your hope where you can, right? Stay safe, everyone—and try not to give in to the fear. (Especially not the fear of your fellow humans, regardless of where exactly on the planet they may be from, or currently living, or recently returned from.) This handwashing PSA via Damien Williams pretty much nails it, I’d say:

One thought on “geography of fear / fear of geography”

  1. Our office here in Uppsala has closed for two weeks and we’re all working from home. Things looked pretty normal in the centre of town on Friday, and my local ICA looked the same as usual when I did my shopping on Saturday. OTOH, Swecon was cancelled and I suspect Åcon in late May will be too.

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