The shift to social isolation has been brutal. Ben Brooker wonders if embracing its strange absences might be a way through crisis
Between the 14th of February and the 15th of March I went to 28 live performances, two gigs, one work-in-progress showing, one art opening, and a handful of sessions at a literary festival. Looking back at my calendar today to work all this out, it registers as some kind of elaborate fantasy. How was all of this possible?
Rapid, profound change is like that. What once felt unthinkable suddenly seems inevitable, then scarily permanent and then, finally, simply mundane – just the way things are.
Nevertheless, the cancellations prompted by COVID-19 been a shock to the system, and one that, like most others, I haven’t yet fully reconciled myself with. To go from being out every night of the week for a month – the COVID-19 pandemic was preceded, almost to the day, by Adelaide’s infamous “Mad March” of arts festivals – to physical isolation hasn’t made for a smooth transition.
‘For me, watching theatre online – at least within the broadcast model typified by the National Theatre – mainly serves to point up the deficiencies of streamed performance’
Most of the time I’m a freelance writer, so I’m used to working from home. But, as for a lot of writers before me, the social outlet of the theatre (and indeed, the pub) is an indispensable fillip to an essentially lonely existence. We have reflexively turned to technology to fill the void, but I can’t be the only one who thinks video-conferencing can have the opposite effect to the one intended, amplifying rather than ameliorating our sense of disconnection. The technology itself inevitably has problems, especially in a country with woefully slow broadband internet, but our expectations of what it can do – namely, anything beyond provide a simulacrum of human connection – may prove more detrimental.
The hasty transition from in-person meetings to video-conferencing has been mirrored by the rush of artists and theatre companies to embrace online platforms for making and disseminating work. Already we’ve seen theatres opening their digital archives, festivals and orchestras live-streaming events (and, more worryingly, attention-starved celebrities broadcasting Shakespeare from their dining rooms). All of this activity is, no doubt, a boon for accessibility, and it may yet produce some interesting experiments in form.
But it is, for me, haunted by a question: are we responding to a need we have sufficiently allowed ourselves to feel and reflect on, or simply manifesting in a different space our deeply ingrained instinct to always be productive? It’s telling that, amidst the vast disruption to daily life occasioned by COVID-19, it’s not our time we seek to regain control over, but our productivity: the default metric of achievement. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber wrote that, under capitalist systems, “inactive contemplation is valueless, or even directly reprehensible, if it is at the expense of one’s daily work”.
I’m aware that many artists – myself included – live hand-to-mouth, and cannot afford to stop taking gigs where we can get them. Jarring though it is, I’ll live without theatre for six months; but I can’t forgo work for that long – a simple fact that has been surprisingly lost in the public discourse. For example, on ABC Radio National, I’ve heard the conversation being framed as one about how we’ll survive without “our favourite shows” being made. Frankly, most creative industries are glutted with extant content, much of which has never been easier to access.
‘Each of us is dealing with small griefs – the places unvisited and people unmet, the mothballed events and projects – and living, in a sense, curious half-lives shadowed by all of the things that would have been happening if not for a global pandemic’
The difference with live performance, of course, is that it is ephemeral, and therefore uniquely affected by the inability of large groups of people to gather simultaneously in the same physical place. For some – presumably like the thousands of people tuning in to the National Theatre’s YouTube stream of One Man, Two Guvnors – this loss can be at least partially made up for. It remains to be seen to what extent this is a response to novelty more than anything else but, for me, watching theatre online – at least within the broadcast model typified by the National Theatre – mainly serves to point up the deficiencies of streamed performance. (Philip Auslander’s notion that liveness was only made visible by technical reproduction comes to mind.)
It seems to me that if there is a silver lining to this pandemic, we won’t necessarily find it in new and repurposed avenues for making, and making available, more stuff – and certainly not in the continued (self-)exploitation of our labour – but in exactly Weberian contemplation. As Peter Frase noted in Jacobin: “When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified ‘technology’, it is to the benefit of the bosses.” We’ve seen this, for example, in the recent mass purchasing of software by employers to spy on remote workers.
In any case, it’s likely that before we get really good at online forms of “content creation” and delivery, the pandemic will be over. This phase may recede until it becomes a mere curio in our cultural memory or is subsumed into a more hybridised cultural industry.
I’m less optimistic about society’s prospects after COVID-19. Where some are envisioning a long-term adoption of some of the socialist-style policies we’re seeing Western governments implementing, I fear a vicious return to post-GFC austerity. It may be hard, as is often pointed out, for governments to take back money once they’ve started giving it out, but it may yet turn out to be harder to reframe how we think about debt and the public good. This is another reason for making the most of the unpressured time COVID-19 has inadvertently given us and that austerity, with its attacks on welfare, social housing, higher education and the like, will rip away again.
More than once during the writing of this essay the absence of live theatre from my existence has struck me as an archetypal “first-world problem”. I’m luckier than many – perhaps most. I’ve lost a casual job that supported my arts practice, which in turn has been stymied. And negotiating life with a newish partner I don’t live with has been challenging. At least for now, though, I have my health, as does everyone I’m close to. But each of us is dealing with small griefs – the places unvisited and people unmet, the mothballed events and projects – and living, in a sense, curious half-lives shadowed by all of the things that would have been happening if not for a global pandemic.
In an alternate universe where COVID-19 never existed, I’ve just completed a week-long development of a theatre work that was to have had its premiere at a national arts festival in May. In our reality, I’m writing these words instead, in the knowledge that the Festival has been cancelled, and that the work’s future is as unsettled as everything else. Assuming the affects of the virus last for the oft-touted six months, my wedding will have to be postponed, plans for my partner and I to move interstate put on hold. And then there are the day-to-day absences. Not seeing friends. Avoiding family. The loss of routines that ground us and give shape to our lives.
As many of us do in dark and uncertain times, I’ve found myself turning increasingly to literature –especially some old favourites – for consolation. Camus’ The Plague. Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn. But times like this also call for reappraisals, for sliding over events a lens we’d always used for some other purpose. I have, for instance, been revisiting the work of Mark Fisher, the late English marxist, academic, and blogger.
Fisher is most well known for Capitalist Realism (2009), a short but trenchant book about the widespread feeling of capitalism’s inevitability, and the impossibility of our imagining viable alternatives to it. With conservative governments around the the world, including our own, coming up sharply against the limits of our current political and economic paradigms to deal with crisis – and overturning (at least temporarily) one after another neoliberal shibboleth as a result – Capitalist Realism will no doubt earn its place among my “to-be-reread” pile in the coming months.
‘I can’t help but wonder if the decision to do nothing – to simply sit in Fisher’s eerie calm – might be our best path through this’
But it wasn’t Capitalism Realism I thought of when preparing to write this essay. It was Fisher’s two books on “hauntology” and weird fiction, Ghosts of My Life (2014) and The Weird and the Eerie (2016). In the latter, Fisher defines the eerie as a quality of absence where there should be something (the weird, in turn, is the reverse: a presence where we expect to find nothing). For Fisher, it is, signally, places that are eerie. Barren landscapes. Abandoned structures. An empty theatre would absolutely qualify.
Where the weird’s power to disturb derives from an abundance of agency – as in the gigantic alien beings of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction – the unsettling charge of the eerie lies in its masking. The unseen thing that produces an “eerie cry”. The force, independent of the human subject, that acts on an apparently vacated site. For Fisher, even capital itself is eerie, “conjured out of nothing” yet “exert[ing] more influence than any allegedly substantial entity”. Can you think of a better description for the stimulus measures currently being rolled out by governments across the world, comprising vast amounts of money that were somehow previously unavailable to our scandalously underfunded schools, hospitals, and social safety nets?
Fisher writes, in a passage made freshly resonant by global stay-at-home orders: “A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance?” It’s a question that haunts those much-anthologised photographs of abandoned shopping malls, hospitals and theme parks, which have become ubiquitous online since the lockdown of public spaces began. But even when the cause is apparent, as in the case of places emptied of humans by the coronavirus, such images remain freighted with a compelling sense of melancholy and the uncanny.
In a recent essay, Cherine Fahd and Sara Oscar suggest these pictures appeal to us because their stillness and symbolic silence draw us in, making us voyeuristically linger over the disruptions and breakdowns they represent. I think, too, they open up a unique interpretative space that – rather like the paintings of Edward Hopper, also getting a good run on the internet at the moment – blur the distinction between subject and object, inviting the viewer to imagine herself into the image’s strange, unpeopled world.
These pictures also have the effect of appearing to slow down or stop time. As Fahd and Oscar note: “The empty shelves, the empty restaurants, the grounded planes, the empty airports, the depopulated Mecca without worshippers, Trafalgar Square without tourists: these are all signals of the slowing of progress.” Without human presence, there seems nothing against which to measure the temporality of these scenes, no sense of their futurity – no sense, indeed, that they even have one.
In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher borrows Italian communist philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s idea of the “slow cancellation of the future” to describe the 21st century’s atemporality. Citing popular music’s obsession with retro styles as a prime example, Fisher, following Berardi, is referring primarily to culture rather than the direction of time itself. But it’s also a phrase that has been increasingly running through my mind in regards to climate change – and now, more pointedly though probably more fleetingly, the pandemic – as suprahuman forces which imperil futurity itself.
Where the climate crisis threatens our longterm prospects, manifesting as a deep temporal anxiety most visible in the international School Strike 4 Climate movement, COVID-19 radically disrupts our sense of an immediate future, causing forthcoming events to be cancelled and delayed, and flattening our everyday perception of time (see all those memes about how long the month just past seemed to go on for).
Fisher’s eerie offers, I think, not only a framework for viewing all this, but also a potential salve to atemporality’s profoundly disturbing effects. A “sense of foreshortened time” – a common symptom of trauma – is, after all, among the most reliable predictors of depressive conditions. In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher writes:
The serenity that is often associated with the eerie – think of the phrase eerie calm – has to do with detachment from the urgencies of the everyday. The perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us release from the mundane, this escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality, which goes some way to account for the peculiar appeal that the eerie possesses.
There’s little to be gained by moralising about how individuals choose to spend their newfound physical isolation, the circumstances around which are changing all the time. After all, we are still in a phase of what in the psychological literature is known as “milling” – a collective process of responding to sudden, unprepared-for disasters by looking for information before committing to doing anything.
But, while this is no time to abandon our social networks, I can’t help but wonder if the decision to do nothing – to simply sit in Fisher’s eerie calm – might be our best path through this if looked at in the right way: not as time lost but time regained, freed “from constraining toil and other forms of compulsion” in William James Booth’s words, and surely a precondition for human development.