Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

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