What does it mean to be human after Covid-19?

In After Lockdown Bruno Latour suggests a shift in the register of our agency, a metamorphosis, revolving around a twitchy hyper-awareness of the consequences of our action. Driven by the awareness of our environmental impact and the strange experience of reorienting ourselves to the world after lockdown, we feel less like an “old-fashioned human being” who is “free, whole, mobile” (pg 3) and more like a vector of unravelling that chips away at the order in the world through the simple fact of acting:

Now I feel like I have to make an effort and haul along at my back a long trail of CO2 that won’t let me buy a plane ticket and take off, and that now hampers my every movement, to the point where I hardly dare tap at my keyboard for fear of causing ice to melt somewhere far away. But it’s been worse since January because, on top of that, I now project in front of me – they tell me non-stop – a cloud of aerosols whose fine droplets can spread tiny viruses in the lungs capable of killing my neighbours,

Pg 2

This is a “becoming-animal” (pg 6) characterised by a brutal awareness of our entanglement with each other and the environments in which we live:

Since, well, if you [tu] feel such uneasiness looking at trees, the wind, rain, drought, sea, rivers – and, of course, butterflies and bees – because you feel responsible, yes, at bottom, guilty for not fighting the people who are destroying them; because you have insinuated yourself into their existence, you have crossed their paths; well, it’s true: you [tu] too, tu quoque (you likewise); you digested them, modified them, transformed them; you turned them into your interior environment, your termitarium, your town, your Prague of stone and cement.

Pg 6

Like so many academic accounts this universalises an experience of lockdown which was never that of a majority, even within the nations in which these academics were writing. In this sense it’s wrong but an interesting way. I was preoccupied early in the pandemic by a phrase used by Zizek in a text which predates the pandemic by many years: floating freely in our undisturbed balance. It highlighted what had shifted in my own experience and which felt like it would never return. It simultaneously left me aware of the conditions which made it possible for me to feel like I was floating through the world, as well as those which made it impossible for others to experience themselves as propelled by nothing other than their own internal momentum, immune from external influence.

I often didn’t feel like this but this awareness tended to fade into the background as the ‘powerful self‘ operated as the largely unacknowledged horizon of my own day-to-day life. The point Zizek was making is that ‘floating freely’ is always a fantasy, leaving the one living through it orientated towards potential threats which can puncture that bubble. The nature of Covid-19 and the socio-legal measures associated with ruptured that fantasy with still uncertain consequences. I find it increasingly difficult to avoid seeing the ‘return to normal’ as an attempt to reinscribe the fantasy, reconstituting ourselves as “free, whole, mobile”. However it follows from what I’ve suggest that being an “old-fashioned human being” (does everyone else imagine Latour himself when reading these words?) in this sense was a privilege available to declining swathes of the population, compounded by the ever increasing cost of living. In this I think we need to being cautious about what ‘normal’ means and how this apparently straight-forward term covers up a whole system of inequalities which the pandemic made socially legible to an unprecedented degree. The thing Latour is pointing towards though is the possibility of an expanded experience of being human grounded in a sense of entanglement which is traumatic for those who could experience themselves most of the time as powerful selves:

We literally no longer live in the same world. They, the people from before lockdown, begin with their teeny little self; they add on a material framework which they say is ‘artificial’ or even ‘inhuman’ – Prague, factories, machines, ‘modern life’; and then, thirdly, a bit further down the track, they pack in a whole jumble of inert things that stretch to infinity and which they don’t really know what to do with anymore.

Pg 19

I need a term that says that, on Earth, ‘everything is made of life’, if you understand by that the rigid body of the termite mound every bit as much as the agitated body of a termite, Charles Bridge every bit as much as the crowds swarming onto Charles Bridge, the fox fur every bit as much as the fox, the dam the beaver builds every bit as much as the beaver, the oxygen bacteria and plants give off every bit as much as the bacteria and plants themselves.

Pg 21

The point he is making is effectively that “you no longer have the same body and you no longer move around in the same world as your parents” (pg 38). We now encounter a world defined by our dependence upon our environment, as well as the role human action plays in sustaining or unpicking it, “suddenly realising that they live with Earth, forever entangled, ensnared, enmired, overlapping, in and on top of each other, without being able to limit these ties to either cooperation or competition” (pg 44). He’s concerned by a “[d]oubt about being able to reproduce its liveability conditions” growing in the face of this dependence and the evident threats to it (pg 40).

It’s when he attempts to parse this in sociological rather than philosophical & ecological terms that I become a bit sceptical. For example the there’s clearly a kernel of truth to his description on pg 34-35 of how social reproduction has been problematised, making it an object of mundane everyday reflexivity across the population. But framing this as ‘we’ realised we needed people we had “only a fairly vague awareness” of needs to be contextualised as a classed experience rather than the uniform shift in social solidarity he seems to be gesturing towards:

We did in fact have to acknowledge, while we travelled online through ‘infinite spaces’ (or, failing that, were transported in multi-episode TV series), that we couldn’t long survive without a whole host of jobs of which we had till then, we must admit, only a fairly vague awareness: catering jobs, deliverers, carriers, not to mention nurses, ambulance drivers and ‘carers’, a whole tribe of people as poorly paid as they were poorly viewed. Carrying out the simplest course of action like feeding yourself required the support of quite a few agents to ‘ensure continuity’ of the most ordinary life – we knew this vaguely but we confirmed it the hard way. The jobs that we tended to disregard became essential again, and the other way round. Suddenly, the work teachers do seemed pretty hard to parents called on to teach their toddlers sums or how to read. In every family, the great injustices in the division of chores between the sexes became more glaring. Daily life demanded constant work to ensure, here again, the simple repetition of days.

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