by Sinéad Murphy
My little boy with autism is back at school, for three days in the week. His support teacher is at last unmasked. On the seventh day of his return, there was an unheralded change. Instead of Joseph being accompanied by his support teacher at pick-up time so that she and I might have a quick chat, he was sent out alone along with his classmates. Inside his bag was a new small notebook, with “Communication Log” written on the cover, in which there were phrases describing aspects of Joseph’s day.
Joseph’s communication is profoundly restricted. He is unable to report any aspect of his physical experience; he cannot tell of anything that has happened to him, no matter how recently. A short exchange, before and after school, with the person responsible for him during the day is essential.
At drop-off time the following morning, Joseph’s support teacher watched helplessly from behind the classroom’s glass door while I held Joseph’s hand at the gate – another of the pathetic scenes that have been a feature of our Covid incarceration. “Mummy’s going to drop you here”, said one of Joseph’s year’s teachers, to me via him. When I objected, she told me, in a rush of what seemed like resentment, that the ‘Communication Log’ was to substitute for the morning and evening chats.
It did not take much representation to the school’s Head to have the chats reinstated; the arguments in their favour were so obviously reasonable. But that the arguments against them were so paltry reveals something concerning, I think.
Even according to ‘The Science’, there could be no conceivable added risk of infection by a respiratory virus in ending a day of up-close support of Joseph by standing in the open air and talking for a few minutes to his mum – to his credit, the Head did not attempt to suggest that there could be.
But if there was nothing actually harmful about these chats, even on the highly-sensitive Covid safety-scale, why were they ruled out so summarily?
Joseph’s support teacher is a woman of great humour; chatting with her is inevitably a lively affair no matter how mundane the topic. But there is something indistinctly offensive now about liveliness of any kind, something excessive, disrespectful.
On our uncertain return to normality there is dawning a new morality, according to which lively human interaction is unseemly simply by virtue of being… well, lively.
This may explain why persecution of the public house continues unabated – insofar as the pub encourages informal and vibrant association, it is the den of a new iniquity: the spontaneous overflow of the human spirit.
At the supermarket checkout the other day, the man in front of me observed through his mask to the woman working the till, how good it is that we have our freedoms back. So long as we use them sensibly, he added.
We have been prodded this year by the devilish theme of safety, which has dramatically altered the contour of our lives. But now the colour of our lives may be changing too, as we are encouraged from all sides not only to stay safe but to be sensible.
On May 15th, the FA Cup final was attended by twenty-two thousand supporters. The fans were back. Football was back. And certainly, the real crowd did foreground how anaemic has been its virtual equivalent. But when Leicester scored the goal that won them the cup, their cheering fans were faced down by a line of officials, caped in plastic over their high-visibility jackets and fanning their outstretched gloved hands, palms downwards, in a calming gesture – Let’s be sensible, folks.
Two days later, May 17th, brought the return of hugging for anyone who had been observing the ban. But it is not a rush-into-the-arms hugging, not a big hugging, not a tight hugging, all of which have about them this new taint of excess. It is sensible hugging: faces turned in opposite directions and got over with as quickly as possible.
There is a new kind of puritanism abroad – casting its pall over our lives, already so out of shape. Those moments when life is brimming over, when we act on impulse, when our sides split with laughter, when we cry with anger or with joy, when we cannot let go our embrace or when we could talk and talk for hours: all have about them a new hue of poor taste. The palate of human life has been dimmed; Let’s be sensible, folks.
In a short blog post from April 16th, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben prepared us for a change of this kind.
Differently from other animals, Agamben wrote, we humans have always the task of deciding what it is that makes us human, and not merely animal.
Homo sapiens is the being that knows itself, the only being on earth that must determine its own essence.
This unique duty – that we decide the kind of being that we are – is what makes us humans so culturally rich and almost infinitely adaptable. But it is also what makes us vulnerable, as no other animal is, to being transformed, profoundly, from the ground up.
Nothing absolute stands in the way of our knowing ourselves differently and knowing ourselves differently changes us utterly.
Is such a change occurring now, as we get back to our new future? Are we in the process of deciding all over again what it is that makes us human?
This would certainly explain the newly muted tones of the life that we are now to live, in which the chatting, the cheering, the hugging that still come naturally to some of us seem suddenly and strangely out of step, not really done, a bit much – Let’s be sensible, folks.
According to Agamben, a society’s decision about what it is that makes us human is reflected in what that society identifies as ‘mere existence’ – bare life. In this space are established the terms on which we claw back from our animal natures whatever it is that is judged to make us human.
We opponents of governments’ Covid policies have traded heavily on this concept of ‘mere existence’, criticising the lockdowns for having reduced our human life to its bare bones.
But in doing so, have we unwittingly lent our voices to a new Covid-era version of ‘mere existence’ and, consequently, to a new Covid-era decision about what it is that makes us human?
Still when I was growing up, references to ‘mere existence’ had mostly to do with work; bare life was the life absorbed by a low-paid unsatisfying job with long hours, or (depressingly) by unwaged care of other people.
If you lived this mere existence, this bare life, you were perilously close to losing that which distinguished you as human – you were said to work like a dog, to have a dog’s life.
If you managed to rise above this mere existence to something better, something more human, you did so also in terms of work. Because a bare life was a life of unwaged drudgery, a full life was a life of satisfying and rewarding employment, and a good life was industrious and purposeful, filled with hobbies and sports at which you were as hardworking as you were at your job.
But since the advent of Covid, when we have bemoaned the reduction of our lives to mere existence, we have referred not to dull work without wages but to quarantine without symptoms. Bare life is no longer the life of unrewarding toil, but of isolation from other people, faces covered and hands sheathed.
The theme of bare life is no longer work but health, where ‘health’ refers, not to a personal equilibrium, but to public safety from invisible attack.
As we have lived this bare life during the past 15 months or so, and tried to reassert our humanness so as to rise above it, it is not the dog’s life against which we have had to define ourselves but the life of the herd animal whose individual hopes and needs are submitted to the advantage of the group: I isolate for everyone, I mask for everyone, I vaccinate for everyone.
Herd immunity has always been a feature of human life. It is a well-established phenomenon in epidemiology. But never before 2020 was it brought before us so unrelentingly that we were simultaneously compelled to reject it as beneath our human status and submitted to the version of it engineered and imposed by governments and their science advisers.
On the new terrain of bare-life-as-isolation-from-and-for-the-herd, we have had to battle all over again to reestablish what makes us human. Human life, we have objected, is more than isolation for the sake of public health. Human life, we have protested, is anathema to distance and to masks.
But we should be careful. Because, if we are beginning to win the battle against the reduction of our lives to mere-existence-as-quarantine, we are likely to be winning it on the terms set up by mere-existence-as-quarantine, that is, on the terms of health-as-safety.
If the society of work is coming to an end, the society of health may be just getting going. In this society, a full life will be the life of optimal protection from identified threats to public safety; and a good life will be the life of due respect for this enterprise, the careful life, the sensible life, in which our human bodies, now branded as traitors, will not be suffered to stretch their limbs too far, nor shout too loud, nor laugh too much, nor hug too tight.
The devil used to make work for idle hands – hence the old morality of working hard. Now the devil makes sickness for loose tongues, and all other body-parts that are brought to bear with gleeful abandon – hence the new morality of being sensible.
What is it that effects a transformation of this magnitude, from a life defined by work and lived industriously to a life defined by health and lived sensibly? How can such changes come about so suddenly and completely? According to Agamben, all it needs is a powerful enough device.
For the society of work, this device was the slave, an idea (rooted in reality, of course) profound enough to capture and recast a whole culture as woven around the theme of work and as haunted by the near-animality of work without reward.
For our society of health, the device is the asymptomatic, an idea (not rooted in reality, it turns out) so powerful that it has captured and recast our world as revolving around the theme of health-as-safety and as haunted by the prospect of disease at the level of the pack.
The device of the asymptomatic sick person has reset the horizons of our lives: the bare life is the life lived apart from the herd for the good of the herd; the full life is the life that is constantly proven to be without sickness itself and protected from the sickness of others: and the good life is the life that abstains from the joyful excess that so irresponsibly forgets that the absence of symptoms does not imply safety.
One of the Internet phenomena of our Covid era has been the film of a flash mob rendition of ‘Danser Encore’ in the Gard du Nord on March 4th.
It has inspired many repeat performances in towns and cities around the world, each one of them a joyful affair.
When I first saw the original video, its effect was profound. To see the sudden eruption, as if from nowhere, of… well, a mob, a glut of people, in the midst of the faceless bedraggle at the station – to see the masks carelessly pulled down or discarded, the random weaving in and out of the crowd, arms linked to the music, to hear singing at the top of fine unmuffled voices. Such a glorious upturning of safety.
But what strikes me now when I watch it is the ludicrousness of the performance, an assemblage of this and that: the tap dancer on her makeshift floor; the circus performer in his Breton top, making upside-down frog-legs; the amateur country dancers; the woman in the mask (around her eyes, not her mouth and nose!) creeping stealthily through the scene… random, heedless, a propos of nothing, not at all sensible.
If we are to unwind the Covid decision about what it is that makes us human – if we are to defuse the device of the asymptomatic spreader and refuse the life of safety to which it consigns us, then we might do worse than begin here, with the players in the Gard du Nord: and dance again and hug again and cheer again and chat again with the lively abandon that spares not a thought for the hidden health-status of ourselves or anyone else.
Dr Sinead Murphy is Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.