Corona Chronotopes

Photo by A THING BY.

A viral video produced by a collective of filmmakers based in Milan shows Italians recording messages to their selves of ten days ago. The video illustrates the time-warped experience of the pandemic, how quickly the situation and its perception can change, and serves as a wake-up call to those in the coronavirus past who still deny the severity of the disease outbreak. One woman says to her self of ten days ago, “I’m sure you’ve heard about something called the coronavirus. And I’m also pretty sure you’re underestimating it.” Another woman wearing a mask says, “I used to make fun of people wearing masks.”

The planet’s experience of the pandemic has moved infectiously like the virus itself. And science fiction author William Gibson’s oft-quoted words fit the pandemic as well: “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

But, as the disease name itself implies, the awareness of the threat emanating from Covid-19—of the year 2019—lags behind the actual distribution of infected humans (the true numbers of which are obscured by asymptomatic carriers, lack of testing, and reluctance/inability to seek medical help). Degrees of threat awareness emerge in a fractal patchwork, weeks-into-months, jet-lagged pattern, creeping along transport hubs, from country to country, from cities to the countryside (or reverse), and from one generation to the next: millions of fractured pandemic space-times, coronavirus as Bakhtinian chronotopes.

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The video reflects back to me my own chronotopic situatedness. When the disease first broke out in Wuhan, it never occurred to me that I would soon worry about coronavirus too. Yes, I packed some face masks to wear at the airports on my trip to Thailand where a few cases had been reported in late January. I didn’t want to ruin my vacation by catching this kind of flu. As the disease spread and came “closer,” I downplayed its impact to myself—more people die of the flu each year!—but also started washing my hands more frequently, just in case. As scholarly organizations began cancelling their spring meetings, I saw my travel plans unravel but held fast to the idea that I would be going to visit my partner in the Bay Area in late March.

It was only the Austrian government’s announcement on March 10, 2020, that starting the next day university classes would no longer be allowed to meet, that caught up my own personal corona chronotope to that of the government’s crisis response team. This step, while it felt extreme to me at a moment when Austria, with a population of eight million, had only 246 confirmed cases and not a single death, communicated to me that this was a very serious situation that needed to be taken very seriously. I cancelled my flight to California.

The pandemic as a cultural experience produces radically different and rapidly changing orientations to it, disrupting and reordering what each of us take as “common sense” on a daily basis. What you take the virus to be strongly suggests what should be done about it. The multiple understandings of and responses to the virus produce multiple universes of experience, their relativized temporality warping as you get closer to different centers of gravity.

As my own perception of the pandemic’s risk was pulled into the gravitational field of the government’s crisis response, I became increasingly disturbed by stances that still tried to downplay the threat. I recoiled when I heard someone claim, “What’s the big deal? The flu kills more people every year”—even though these were words I had uttered to myself and others two weeks prior. In my own social field and on social media, generations were pitted against each other. Baby boomers did not see themselves as part of the risk group and those under thirty did not recognize the threat they posed to the rest. Only people in the middle decades of their lives, so it seemed, turned to each other with disbelief at the blatant disregard their parents and students displayed.

Now, one might say, it is anthropological mainstay that what you see depends on where you stand, that your situatedness shapes your perspective. But what is different about the multiple situatednesses in the global pandemic is the speed with which individual orientations can change.

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The stages of pandemic consciousness may include in no strict order: disinterest (it is happening elsewhere), denial (it won’t be bad here), diminishment (it’s just like the flu), bewilderment (what the hell is happening here?), panic (toilet paper!), begrudging acceptance (let’s get through this), normalization (what day is it again?), and, by now, grave concern about its aftermath (how much will the economy suffer?). The pandemic as a cultural experience of the rapid succession of these strongly held common-sense positions about Covid-19 reflects another anthropological trope. It is making the familiar strange, but also making the strange familiar. I notice myself moving from one position to the next, each of which feels perfectly normal to me, but only while I am in it. My previously held belief that this was “just like the flu” feels like the embarrassing mistake of a younger version of myself. At the market on Saturday, I quickly internalize the completely novel sight of masked faces as the comforting fact that my fellow market-goers, too, take the pandemic seriously. I look at people NOT wearing masks with nearly aggressive disapproval.

The speed with which I assume a new position, and distance myself from an old one surprises me. Each position possesses a particular polarity that then attracts me to other, compatible positions, and repels me from incompatible positions with a loudness, an intensity that feels unusual, even in so-called polarized times.

The pandemic’s common sense is produced throughout multiple overlapping processes of alienation and familiarization characterized by warp-speed, high contrast, high volatility, high emotion, and high stakes. The pandemic’s common sense is characterized by intensity.

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When I now see photos of pre-pandemic events, masses at a concert, a crowd at a bar, I feel a jolt at its risk and pine its innocence. What could we take from this observation as we notice, perhaps with some disquiet, how quickly we can get used to all this; how rapidly the “new normal” is just normal? Might our lesson be to remain alert to our changed positionality and how it warps our view of the world? Just as historians warn against judging the past by the standards of the present, we might remember to be aware of our chronotopic positionality and to be wary of letting today’s perspective dominate our view of yesterday and outlook onto tomorrow. Until one day, we board a busy bus without care, our present predicament only a faint memory.