by Dr. Sinéad Murphy
There is a shop on the high street of one of Newcastle’s suburbs. On the window is emblazoned:
YOU ARE MAGICAL, EXTRAORDINARY, COOL AND BEAUTIFUL.
To whom is the statement addressed? According to a 2019 study, over half of adults in this country are overweight or obese; up to 2018 at least, more were repeat users of opioid painkillers than in any other country in the EU; and during three months last summer, six million people in England were prescribed anti-depressants just to get through the day.
Whoever the shop’s sign is describing, it is not likely to be any of the beings of flesh and blood who daily pass it by.
In his article for the Daily Sceptic on October 24th, Will Jones named the three major themes according to which our lives are currently being transformed: Covid, Climate, and Critical Theory. These themes have jostled with one another for our ever more petrified attention during the past almost-two years.
Each theme is accompanied by the great motif of ‘Zero’ – Zero Covid, Zero Carbon, Zero Tolerance.
There is something tantalizing about Zero. It has an elegant and satisfying simplicity. That it cannot be realised does not dilute its effect, which is to instill in us a new contempt: for the mechanisms of our bodies, for our impact on the world, and for the building blocks of social interaction.
Bombardment by the themes of Covid, Climate and Critical Theory makes us retreat in disgust from ourselves, one another and our world.
And in this lies the great power of Zero: it implies only retreat, that action taken in its name is only privation – less of what we had or have, not as dirty, not as noisy, not as bawdy, not as hurtful, not as unhealthy.
Nothing to see here folks, in other words; nothing new under the sun, just less of the bad stuff.
Now, as we creep forth from our Covid retreat, we must only breathe a little more carefully and touch a little more hesitatingly – put a mask over our mouth and nose and keep on testing our viral load. Now, as we emerge from our Covid hibernation, we must only tread less heavily, reduce our footprint, make a smaller impression, use less, eat less, heat less, drive less. And now, as we hatch from our Covid months of distanced and stilted interactions, we must only talk more quietly and carefully, choose our words (sometimes new words) and keep things neutral.
We are out of the cocoon of lockdown (almost wholly a phantasm of the media and the middle classes) as a delicate kind of butterfly (also a phantasm of the media and the middle classes): too good for this world, barely touching down, flitting unobjectionably from here to there, emitting no sound that anyone might dislike, hardly even stirring the air, our breathing assiduously filtered, our need for resources minimal, our speech pure of content.
The Newcastle shop’s sign is addressed to this butterfly – the new model citizen, whose breath is sweet, whose step is light, and whose words are little more than smiling ‘Ahhh’s.
If we run its gauntlet, we may purchase an item in cappuccino tones, with a backstory more world-historical than any pair of shoes should warrant and a projected lifestyle of felted wool and linen totes like none that anyone ever lived. And we may glory in the ethical provenance of our purchase, though, like all Zero chic, it has nothing for us but disdain.
For, we are not magical – our breath is thick with contagion, our footfall is heavy and our words are pithy and meaningful. And we are not extraordinary – we are common, of the world, in communities, understood by those around us, subject to symptoms and with a tendency to produce waste. And we are not cool – our blood is hot and sometimes it boils. And we are not beautiful – not in the way of butterflies, though we have good faces if we would only show them.
Dr. Sinéad Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.