Back in July 2021 I wrote an article for the AIER arguing that the best way to understand the lockdown phenomenon was as a form of ‘kitsch’. The core of this observation was a passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he describes kitsch as being at the heart of any significant political phenomenon.
“Kitsch,” as Kundera puts it, “is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.” This is because kitsch is fundamentally about shared emotion. What makes something kitschy is not just the feeling one experiences from looking at it; it is that feeling combined with the awareness that the same feeling is collectively shared. When one is moved, one sheds a tear; kitsch inheres in the awareness that the rest of mankind is moved in the same way, and sheds a tear too. This creates a powerful bond that transcends space and time: when Bob looks at the Mona Lisa and is moved, and knows that anybody else from the past, present and future looking at the painting is moved in the same way, he knows that he is united with them in a swell of shared emotion despite it never being possible for them to have physically met.
This phenomenon, Kundera tells us, is at the root of politics, and it is easy to see why. Consider libertarians, united with one another in being moved by the importance of freedom and knowing that they are bonded with fellow free spirits across the globe and across the ages who feel the same way. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, think of contemporary ‘woke’ activists, imbued both with a sense of outrage over some perceived injustice, and the sensation that the same rush of emotion is felt by legions of likeminded but anonymous brethren across the world. The point is not that the individual has very good, rational reasons for adopting whatever political stance he adopts, nor even that he has very strong feelings per se, but rather that he has strong feelings which he knows are part of a much wider collectivity of emotion. A great novelist can often provide more insight in a single sentence than a thousand political philosophers or psychologists working for a year; so it is with Kundera’s conclusion that “political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch”.
It’s always a gratifying thing to have one’s views confirmed by events. And so they have been recently with the news that the U.K.’s official public inquiry into the preparations and response to the Covid pandemic is going to have a commemorative tapestry created so as to accompany its work – and framed in terms that are absolutely redolent with kitsch.
First, of course, we get the feelings – and almost nothing but feelings. “I hope [the tapestry] will speak to a range of experiences and emotions,” the curator, Ekow Eshun, tells us, from “pain and loss to courage, hope and devotion”. Baroness Hallett, the Chair of the Inquiry, likewise insists that what is important in the project is “capturing individual and shared stories” of “hardship and loss”. Andrew Crummy, the famous Scottish tapestry artist, meanwhile lets us know what a “real honour” it has been to “help give voice to [the] stories” of bereaved families. And a representative of an organisation called Long Covid Kids expresses the hope that the tapestry will communicate how Covid “is an unseen shadow” hanging over “the suffering”. The same theme emerges again and again of validating and partaking (often vicariously) in the emotions of those who “suffered” during the pandemic, and becoming filled with compassion for those unfortunate people accordingly. “In the realm of kitsch,” as Kundera reminds us, “the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.”
But we also, of course get what makes kitsch kitsch in the first place – the sense of the importance that emotions are shared. Sammie McFarland, the Long Covid Kids representative, expresses this neatly in stating the desire that the tapestry will “weave our experiences together”. And this objective is indeed all over the project itself. Again and again we see emphasised the theme of togetherness and sharing, often in transcendental form, whether it be Eshun’s vision of a “tapestry [weaving] the threads of these stories, across the nations and regions, into a lasting tribute”, Delia Bryce (representative of a bereaved group) and her expressed hope that “those that see [the tapestry] in years to come will understand why it’s important our loved ones lost to COVID-19 should never be forgotten”, or Baroness Hallett’s historicist interpretation of her own mission as being to unite past, present and future in commemorating “hardship and loss” and keeping those feelings “at the heart of the Inquiry’s ongoing procedures”.
The image that comes to mind is clear: a physical object that will move the onlooker who observes the painful emotions depicted therein, and also move her in knowing that all other onlookers – past and future, wherever they are found – will be moved in the same way. The tapestry, in other words, will be an instantiation of kitsch par excellence, serving to unify a national collective in a common emotional response to the suffering that was endured by the pandemic’s victims and their loved ones.
Kitsch, then, continues to inform a powerful political movement, which it seems safe to label ‘lockdownism’: the idea that disease itself can, and should, be fought and triumphed over at the expense of human sociality. And this project does not derive, as Kundera reminds us, from “rational attitudes”. Rather, it derives from a set of “fantasies, images, words and archetypes”. It derives from a sense of the “hardship and loss” of those who suffer. It derives from a feeling of being united in “pain and loss […], courage, hope and devotion”. It derives from “shared stories”. And it derives from particular images, such as that of the “unseen shadow” of Long Covid hanging over innocent children; or emotional archetypes, such as the “loss of a much-loved parent”, which when conjured in the mind instantly trigger powerful sensations. It is not a product of reasoned argument, but of shared feeling and the very knowledge that that feeling is in fact shared.
The importance of this tapestry and what it signifies should therefore not be underestimated. First of all, its existence and the terms in which it is framed suggest that we can expect very little indeed from the Covid Inquiry overall. Anyone who retained any lingering optimism that the Inquiry might challenge the dominant narrative (that ‘the science’ supported lockdowns and the government’s main error was in failing to lock down ‘harder and earlier’) can now banish it from their minds. The creation of this tapestry and the manner in which it is described by the commissioners and participants make the direction of travel abundantly clear: the Inquiry will be holding the Government to account only insofar as it caused “suffering and death” from COVID-19. This is because lockdownism is fundamentally a kitsch of compassion. Its proponents care deeply about preventing deaths and suffering from Covid, and know that they are part of a wider collectivity of likeminded people who also know that they all feel the same way. It is by definition not rational – and that is a feature, as they say, rather than a bug.
And second, it means that lockdown sceptics will remain entirely unwelcome at the hearings. An important feature of kitsch, Kundera tells us, is that it must endeavour to be monolithic: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit.” What he means by this is that kitsch must reject any sort of objection: “All answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” The entertaining of genuine objections immediately causes the balloon of shared emotion to rapidly deflate, in other words, – because, of course, there is then an interjection of countervailing ideas, which always sits awkwardly alongside strong feeling. And the result is that those animated by a political kitsch cannot, and will not, approach matters with an open mind. Quite the contrary: their minds will already long ago have been made up – and the purpose of the Inquiry is preordained to confirm them.
The only consolation for said sceptics is that for all the talk of ‘commemoration’, the fact is that amongst the public at large the lockdowns are now long forgotten, and most people seem happy that they should remain so. The masks, hand-sanitisers and perspex screens have all but disappeared, and it is hard now to imagine that people would once again embrace a full-scale lockdown as a sensible policy for dealing with a viral outbreak – the costs are now widely understood to have been far too great, even if this is rarely explicitly stated. And for all of its apparent power at the height of the pandemic, the idea that human sociality should be sacrificed permanently to prevent the spread of disease has not taken root. People have now more or less reverted to the ‘old normal’ at least in terms of their view of sickness, and clearly do not want to live out the rest of their lives worrying about infection. For all that this newly commissioned tapestry will resonate with the true believers of lockdown kitsch, then, it is highly unlikely that it will capture the popular imagination. This is a cold comfort, because those responsible for the trashing of our society, education system, economy and commitment to civil liberties that took place in 2020 ought to get a comeuppance of a kind. And they won’t. But we have to be thankful for small mercies.