I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.
(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague ; and Philip Roth’s last novel, Nemesis , about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).
When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.
I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).
It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.
I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.
In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.
I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”
One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oft–parodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).
I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.
What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”
What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.
Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.
We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.
I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.
Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.
“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.
I have little doubt that Donald Trump’s declaration that he is a “wartime president” emerged from either his media-addled brain or the sycophancy of a staffer—a romantic bit of self-fashioning that appealed to his fascination with military might and his own image of himself as a tough guy. And I’m just as sure he likes it because it makes him feel special—after all, wartime presidents are a select group, right?
Well, not so much. Unfortunately for Trump, he already was a wartime president. Indeed, one of his many unfilled campaign promises was that he was going to end America’s ongoing wars. To be fair, I’m sure he didn’t feel like a wartime president, even when he got to order a missile strike against Syria or the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani. A wartime president in the popular imagination—which, let’s face is, is the only imagination Trump has—is someone who visibly leads the nation through fire, like Lincoln in the Civil War or FDR in WWII, or George W. Bush (up until the point when it became obvious that Iraq was an unwinnable quagmire). And when you think about it, we don’t tend to think of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon as wartime presidents because, well, America lost in Vietnam. The War of 1812 had an ambiguous ending, so James Madison doesn’t get equal billing with George Washington. Winning is important. But even unequivocal victory doesn’t necessarily make the cut: George H.W. Bush is remembered more for “Read my lips!” and losing the presidency after one term than for winning the first Gulf War. (Precisely why this is the case is something I’ll discuss below).
In actual fact if not popular imagining, “wartime president” is hardly a distinction, as there are precious few presidents (if any) from George Washington onwards who did not preside over one war or another. Some, perhaps, like Reagan and Grenada or Clinton and Kosovo, hardly seem more than skirmishes; but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find presidents who didn’t engage in at least a little bit of military adventurism.
That being said, Trump’s claim to be a wartime president has at least a modicum of resonance, if for no other reason than that we do genuinely understand this moment to be one of immediate crisis, and its effects are being felt by everybody. People like myself who hold Trump in contempt scoff at his assumption of the “wartime” mantle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somehow apt on a gut level—just that we can’t imagine someone as venal and incompetent as Trump actually, you know, leading.
Precisely why “wartime president” has resonance now is more my concern here, however, than Trump’s dismal performance (I will, no doubt, have much to say about that in future posts). It goes back to what I observed above: that George H.W. Bush doesn’t get that title in spite of the fact that he presided over the only unequivocal U.S. military victory since V-J Day. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case: he never really rose above the “wimp” moniker or Dana Carvey’s impression of him; he was a one-term president who lost to the libertine Bill Clinton; victory was way too easy; he could never emerge from Ronald Reagan’s shadow; and there was the fact that, in many people’s minds, he left the true business of the Gulf War—i.e. ousting Saddam Hussein—unfinished, to be completed by his more rugged and warlike scion.
What I would argue, however, is that, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, “the Gulf War did not take place.” When Baudrillard first composed that notorious sentence, it was—unsurprisingly—controversial. He was pelted with accusations of callousness towards those Coalition soldiers who had been killed or wounded, and by those who assumed it was a conspiracy theory that the Gulf War had been a simulation akin to what would be depicted several years later in the film Wag the Dog. (Baudrillard’s most influential book, after all, is the slim tome entitled Simulations). I’m sure everyone will be shocked to learn that Baudrillard was arguing a somewhat different, albeit related, point: the Gulf War did not take “place,” he said, in the sense that it was not real for its spectators. For all of the media coverage, of which there was countless hours—let’s remember, it was the coverage of the Gulf War that demonstrated the viability of CNN’s business model as a 24/7 news network—none of it had the visceral substance of the reporting on Vietnam. Which was, indeed, by design: received wisdom stated that it was in allowing reporters to show dead and wounded soldiers and images of combat, that the U.S. government lost the war of popular opinion, and therefore the moral authority to wage war in Vietnam as they saw fit. Hence, news of the Gulf War was carefully vetted and funneled through government and military officials, often through press conferences showing off video footage of “smart” weaponry surgically obliterating targets.
Is it any wonder it was dubbed “the video game war”? Baudrillard’s larger point was that the Gulf War lacked affect for people at home, and thus did not take place in any meaningful sense. It was not a felt war, but an imaginary one, in the sense that anyone who was not there or was close to someone who was did not have their lives impacted beyond the barrage of media images.
This dynamic was recapitulated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center was certainly a felt experience, as it upended people’s understanding of reality and possibility. And George W. Bush certainly assumed the mantle of a wartime president with cinematic flair. But it is important to remember that, framed within his celebration of the American spirit and platitudes about fortitude, was the more crucial exhortation to keep shopping. If the economy tanks, the sentiment went, the terrorists win. Keep on as normal—keep consuming, and thus vindicate the capitalist ethos.
On one hand, it was sensible advice: the best way to defeat terrorism, after all, is to refuse to be terrorized. On the other hand, however, it was message of political expediency that reflected an aversion to asking people to sacrifice. Does that sound at all familiar? Trump might want to call himself a wartime president, but doesn’t seem inclined to fight much, and has only very reluctantly allowed for the fact that social distancing and isolation is beneficial. His obvious inclination is to echo Bush’s harangue and tell people to start shopping again, already.
Trump is a wartime president because people are feeling it in their lives, more so than any time since WWII. WWII was a felt war because it impacted people’s lives with rationing, social upheaval, and the draft, which meant that there were few people living stateside who didn’t know someone in combat. Vietnam was a felt war also because of the draft, and because of the nightly news showing scenes of horror, all of which made for cultural divisiveness on a scale not seen since the Civil War.
The U.S. learned those lessons for the first Gulf War, and refined them post-9/11. To my mind, the most eloquent expression of the cognitive dissonance between combat and civilian life is a brief scene in the film The Hurt Locker. Jeremy Renner plays a bomb disposal expert who spends his tour defusing IEDs. When he comes home, he is grocery shopping with his wife, and she asks him to grab some cereal. Standing in the cereal aisle, he has option paralysis: a seemingly infinite stretch of shelves, all of them offering minute variations of sugar-coated processed grains.
It is a far cry from WWII-era rationing.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to denude the pain and trauma of those who serve in combat units in the military, or their friends and families, or those civilians living in war zones caught in the crossfire. Their experience is quite real, quite felt, and utterly not imaginary. But war has always had its front lines and its home fronts. It has been quite some time in the privileged West since the home front has had to make sacrifices. Right now, if we accept the war metaphor—which, in spite of everything I’ve just said, I don’t know that I do—the home front is the front line.
Which, sadly, makes Donald Trump a wartime president.
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.”
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.