The suspended futures of Covid-19

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the temporality of the Covid crisis. There was a suspension of time during lockdown, in which a national unit attempts to stop to the greatest extent possible without self-destructing, constituting a pretty unique act of (partial) demobilisaiton. However this was just the first act, leading to a much more liminal phase in which we remain suspended between normality and lockdown, inching forward uncertainly with catastrophe on the horizon.

In view of this, it’s interesting to ask what has happened to the future. In a thought provoking paper Ben Anderson argues that the late neoliberal enthusiasm for anticipation was grounded in a particular conception of the future. From pg 780:

Integral to contemporary anticipatory action is one such problematization of ‘the future’: the assumption is that the future will diverge from the past and present. It is neither a perpetuation of the present, nor an imminent-transcendent End outside of time. Instead, the future will radically differ from the here and now (even as the here and now or the past may contain traces of the disaster to come). As a range of work in geography and elsewhere demonstrates, the language of ‘uncertainty’ and ‘indeterminacy’ can now be found throughout attempts to govern climate change, terror and trans-species epidemics

What’s fascinating about our present crisis is that it was anticipated, as a catastrophe incipient within what was then the present. It was expected that the future could radically differ from the here and now, in ways that necessitate preparation through rendering those possibilities legible. As Anderson puts it on pg 782, “anticipatory action aims to ensure that no bad surprises happen”. Was Covid-19 a surprise? Seemingly so, in spite of the fact it was anticipated, highlighting the specialised nature of anticipation and its insulation from life at large.

Yet if we’re now in this radically different future, what does it mean for our future? Would our previous normal existence now be classes as radically divergent? The receding hope that this will all be over by summer, then winter or perhaps next year is giving way to a growing awareness that there can’t be a straight forward return to ‘normality’, not least of all because existing in this liminal state for such a long period of time has social, cultural, political and economic consequences which aren’t reversible.

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